WHEN THEY are older, and showing their own children photo albums that have far too many blank spaces, Mehki Donte Green and Laylani Lewis will say that their mother died a hero on a soggy, bitterly cold day in Philadelphia.

Their mom, veteran Philadelphia Firefighter Joyce Craig-Lewis, lost her life while battling a hellacious blaze in West Oak Lane in the early morning darkness yesterday, earning a heartbreaking place in the city's history as the first female firefighter to die in the line of duty.

Last night, some of Craig-Lewis' colleagues gathered for a vigil at her fire company, Engine 64, on Rising Sun Avenue near Benner Street in Lawncrest, and were enveloped by citizens in an outpouring of support for Craig-Lewis, who friends said dreamed of becoming a firefighter as a little girl.

Colleagues said Craig-Lewis celebrated her 11th anniversary as a firefighter Monday. Less than three hours after that milestone, she responded to the fire that would claim her life.

"This one stings a little bit different somehow, being the first female," said a fellow firefighter who worked alongside Craig-Lewis at one time and knew her for nearly two decades.

Craig-Lewis' colleagues spoke with the Daily News on condition of anonymity, citing an order by Fire Department brass that firefighters not speak with news media about their fallen comrade.

Craig-Lewis, 36, was admired for having a reputation for being a "firefighter's firefighter."

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said she "prided herself on working at busy fire companies" and had worked at Engine 9 in Germantown, Engine 45 in North Philadelphia, and most recently, Engine 64. She was subbing at Engine 73 in West Oak Lane yesterday morning when she was killed.

The blaze broke out at 2:49 a.m. in the basement of a two-story brick rowhouse on Middleton Street near Woolston Avenue.

It quickly traveled upward, creating a "chimney effect" - intense smoke and heat billowing from the basement - prompting fire officials to order firefighters inside to retreat, Sawyer said.

Once outside, though, the firefighters discovered that Craig-Lewis was missing. Sprinting back inside, they found her in the basement, Sawyer said.

"They were not able to get her out before she passed," Sawyer said. "We conducted first-aid CPR on the scene and en route to the hospital. Upon arrival to [Albert Einstein Medical Center], she was pronounced."

One fellow firefighter said it was just like Craig-Lewis to stick around, giving her all to fight a fire and save a life.

"She was feisty. That's the best way to put it," the colleague said. "Joyce was just a gutsy girl with a head full of steam. I wouldn't be surprised that Joyce would hang in there a little longer, saying, 'Hold on, give me a sec.' "

Lewis leaves behind her son, Mehki, 16, and daughter, Laylani, 16 months.

Investigators haven't determined how she became trapped.

"She was trying to extinguish that fire," Sawyer said, adding that Craig-Lewis' efforts gave her colleagues time to rescue the elderly resident, Shirley Byrd.

Byrd, 74, has mobility problems, neighbors said. She uses a walker to get around, said neighbor Corinna Nesbitt, 83.

"The Philadelphia Fire Department, one of the best in America, the first organized department, has suffered a tremendous loss. That loss extends to all Philadelphians," Mayor Nutter said.

Sawyer agreed: "Everybody's heartbroken. I did know her personally. I knew that she was a hard worker. I knew that she was a firefighter's firefighter."

Firefighters who knew Craig-Lewis echoed Sawyer about her work ethic, adding that she was a joy to work alongside - always quick with a wisecrack or some "firehouse humor."

"She had no problem making fun of you or setting you straight," a fellow firefighter said with a smile.

Investigators planned to test Craig-Lewis' gear for possible malfunctions.

Firefighters have two safety devices that can signal they have an emergency, said Joe Schulle, president of Local 22, the union representing the city's 2,100 firefighters and paramedics.

One is a personal-alert safety system that sounds a loud alarm if the firefighter manually presses it or remains motionless for more than 20 seconds, Schulle said. The second is an emergency button on the portable radio firefighters carry, which opens the microphone for 14 seconds to let the firefighter declare an emergency while hands-free.

It was the second device that Craig-Lewis triggered, Schulle said, although he said he didn't know the content of her message.

Black mourning bunting hung over the red garage door at Engine 64 yesterday. By nightfall, a candlelit memorial of flowers, photos and a pink rosary grew around Craig-Lewis' locker. Her navy-blue uniform shirt hung on the locker's door, a pink ribbon pinned to the shoulder.

"She loved to come in . . . and be ready for any call," Engine 64 Lt. Benny Hutchins said.

On Friendship Street near Frontenac, the quiet, well-manicured block in Castor that Craig-Lewis called home, neighbors reacted with sadness and horror when they learned of her death.

"It's an awful shame any time a firefighter or another first responder dies," said Bud Sperber, who lived down the street. "But to lose a mother who had a teenage son and a baby . . . you can't put that into words."

Sperber said he didn't know Craig-Lewis personally, as he watched a police officer stand guard in front of her house.

Investigators haven't determined what sparked the blaze that claimed Craig-Lewis' life. Firefighters had it under control by 3:32 a.m.

On the block where Craig-Lewis died, some superstitious neighbors mused that their street seems cursed for firefighters.

Down the block, at the corner of Woolston Avenue, stands the old home of fire Lt. Derrick Harvey. Harvey, 45, died trying to rescue comrades who were trapped in a Logan house fire in 2004; that blaze also originated in a basement.

Yesterday morning, the sound of fire truck sirens and engines awoke Tessa Berry, 48, who ran outside to find out what was happening.

"Fire was just shooting out. I thought it was going to explode," Berry said.

Berry said she saw firefighters "rushing somebody out" and later learned a firefighter had died.

"We cried when we heard she died," Berry said. "It's such a sad thing, that someone could lose their life helping someone else."

Craig-Lewis was the fourth firefighter to die on-duty in Pennsylvania - and 83rd nationally - this year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Capt. Michael Goodwin, killed in April 2013 while fighting a fire in a fabric store in Queen Village, was Philly's last firefighter to die on duty.

Craig-Lewis was one of 58 female firefighters in the city, Schulle said. Altogether, the fire department has 150 women (the other 92 are paramedics), he said.

Back at Craig-Lewis' firehouse last night, colleagues huddled close in the cold air, mourning their fallen comrade.

"Unfortunately, people get hurt and die on this job. Everybody knows it can happen," a fellow firefighter said. "But you never expect it to be today."

On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo

Blog: phillyconfidential.com