Two children - a 2-year-old and 5-year-old - yesterday were critically injured in a fire that raced through the basement of a home in the Glendora section of Gloucester Township, authorities said.
The smoke and heat also injured a Glendora man who had doused himself with a garden hose, then entered the burning house to extract one of the trapped victims.
He was rescued when police officers and firefighters arrived.
The blaze broke out shortly after 10 a.m. in a bungalow in the 100 block of 12th Avenue, a quiet block of single homes off the Black Horse Pike.
A woman, who was not identified by authorities, was in her rented house with her 2-year-old son, her 5-year-old daughter, and a 5-year-old boy she was babysitting. Authorities did not identify which of the 5-year-olds was critically injured.
John Wilkins, 53, was cutting a neighboring lawn when he saw black smoke, said his brother Joe, 51, also of Glendora.
"He grabbed a hose, started squirting himself, then went in to try to save the kids - but he couldn't make it," said Joe Wilkins, a building contractor. "The smoke and heat were too much for him, and they had to pull him out."
Lisa Lerro, 43, was sitting on a bench on her front porch a few houses away on Glendora Avenue when she heard the commotion, she said.
"I could see people running back and forth and heard her [neighbor] screaming. She was saying, 'My baby is in the basement! My baby is in the basement!'
"I looked over and saw the smoke and went in my house to call 911. It was just a horrible thing. I wouldn't want myself to be in her predicament."
Authorities were alerted at 10:22 a.m., and firefighters and Gloucester Township police rescued the children and put out the fire, which was declared under control by 10:37 a.m. Investigators were trying to determine the cause.
Two police officers were reportedly injured and treated for smoke inhalation.
The mother and the most seriously injured children were taken to Cooper University Trauma Center. The children were later transferred to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
John Wilkins, a handyman and lawn-care worker, was treated for smoke inhalation at Kennedy Memorial Hospitals-University Medical Center/Stratford and released.
"My brother would do anything for anybody. He's one of a kind," Joe Wilkins said outside the fire-damaged house. "He just likes to help people. What else could he do here?"