Cleo Williams is the sort of man who on a hot day will fix a leaky patch on a neighbor's roof and not even charge full price. Sometimes, if he knows a homeowner is low on cash, he will quietly put a fresh coat of paint on a porch for free.

About 10 p.m. Monday, something terrible happened to Williams. A car hit him in an alley in his Northeast Washington neighborhood and vanished.

Williams was found lying on the alley pavement in front of the garage where he lives and operates his longtime fix-it business. His right leg was torn off in what police called a hit-and-run accident.

Around the neighborhood yesterday, friends prayed that Williams, 52, will be able to continue to do the work that means so much to him.

Police said they were searching for a 1982 white Buick LeSabre with Virginia plates. The accident happened in the 600 block of I Street NE, said Officer Kervin Johnson of the D.C. police.

Williams was taken to Washington Hospital Center, where he is recovering in the intensive care unit.

At the hospital yesterday, he was surrounded by friends from the neighborhood. He was groggy, sucking on ice chips handed to him by a nurse. "I'm just sad I lost my leg," he said. "One minute I was walking to my house. The next this car, just boom, backed up into me."

The slender man with a shiny bald head loves to work, neighbors said from the porches of their row houses. He does the smallest tasks, they said--like changing the oil on Douglas Murray's old car--with a smile and a nod.

"He would have worked 24 hours a day if we let him," said Dave Robinson, 42. "And he would do a favor for just about anyone."

Williams and Robinson are part of a small community of mechanics and handymen who have workshops on the alley. Yesterday, Robinson and a half-dozen others stood in front of one of the small garages, just steps from where Williams was hit.

"It was right there that I saw him just suffering there," Murray said.

A longtime resident of the neighborhood, Williams lives alone, leading what friends say is a quiet life of watching basketball games, listening to Patti LaBelle and spinning humorous tales about life as a handyman.

"He never did the drugs or drank alcohol," said a friend, Richard Williams. "He was good for all of us. He was just a very good man." He spoke in the past tense out of shock, although his friend is expected to recover.

Cleo Williams recently enjoyed drag-racing trucks down Sixth Street with Jerome Drake, 41, a longtime friend. "I whooped him in the race," Drake said. "But he wasn't competitive; he was in it just to have fun."

Alden Wilson, 55, said he and Williams returned Monday night from preparing ladders for a job at a doctor's house across from the Russian Embassy.

"There was fear in my heart when I heard he was hurt," Wilson said. "He was excited for this new job. Painting a doctor's house--that was a good job."

Instead, Williams is in the hospital, exhausted and nervous about what life will now be like.

"He was always Johnny on the spot," said Elizabeth "Libby" Edward. "We want him to keep that up."

As a carload of friends drove off to visit him in the hospital, others stood on their porches and called out: "Tell him we hope he's okay! Tell him we miss him!"