Six D.C. firefighters were awarded medals of valor yesterday for the dramatic rescue last October of three small children and three adults from a flaming apartment building in Southeast Washington.

The firefighters were selected from nominees from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania for the award, which is issued annually by the Eastern Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

"This was a very outstanding rescue that showed extreme cooperation, coordination and communication. Strategically, it was superior to any other operation we had," said Chief Michael D. Chiaramonte of Lynbrook, N.Y. The division president traveled to Washington to distribute the medals during a news conference at the Wilson Building.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson also praised the six: Eric Zbikowski and Ronald Kemp, both lieutenants, and firefighters Gerald Bunn, Gary Steen, Gary Mayo and James Edelen Jr. "They've done a job people can be proud of," Thompson said.

The fire broke out about 10 p.m. Oct. 16 in a second-floor apartment at 2555 Elvans Rd. SE after a woman left a pot cooking on a stove and went to visit a neighbor, according to fire officials said. Rescue Squad 3, led by then-Sgt. Kemp (who missed yesterday's ceremony because he was stuck in traffic), raced to the scene after receiving reports that numerous people were trapped.

The squad arrived to find panicked residents gathered outside a building with "heavy fire conditions," Thompson said yesterday as he described the rescue at length. The layout was complex, and there was no rear access.

Kemp and Mayo went in first and found an unconscious 2-year-old girl in a bedroom in the burning apartment. Kemp scooped her up, sustaining second-degree burns as he and Mayo made their way out of the building. Zbikowski discovered a second child unconscious in another room. And in the rear bedrooms, "in extremely hot and dark conditions," Thompson said, Bunn found a third child, who also was carried out to safety.

Meanwhile, Edelen and Steen found three panicked adults threatening to jump from the third floor directly above the burning apartment. Edelen and Steen calmed them down and shared their air hose while waiting for additional firefighters to clear out a path.

The children -- including a boy, 6, and a girl, 5 -- suffered smoke inhalation but survived, Thompson said. Under some debris outside, firefighters later found a woman who had jumped from the burning building and broken a leg.

Yesterday, the firefighters solemnly accepted their beribboned medals but modestly referred most questions about the rescue to a commander.

"It's always wonderful to be honored," Zbikowski allowed. "But a lot of people were involved. It was a group effort."