Cornered by the raging fire, the two friends from Liberia faced a deadly choice. They had grabbed two of the children who had been sleeping on the basement floor of the duplex, but the flames and smoke had forced them all to retreat to the bathroom and now into the shower.

It was there that Henry Gbokoloi and Harris Murphy debated what to do.

Gbokoloi, at 54 the older of the two, warned that they would perish if they tried to escape. Harris Murphy, 35, was just as emphatic about making a run for it.

"If you stay," he told Gbokoloi, "we will not make it."

Yesterday, Murphy stood grief-stricken outside the city morgue, a survivor of a fire that killed seven people Friday night, including three children, ages 1, 6, and 8. Among the dead were Gbokoloi, of Yeadon, and the two children who huddled in the bathroom.

"We made our decision so fast," Murphy said.

Fire officials said the blaze began in the basement of the brick twin at 6418 Elmwood Ave. in Southwest Philadelphia when a portable heater ignited as it was being refilled, either with kerosene or gasoline. Flames quickly spread up stairwells and walls to the third floor.

But it was an ongoing renovation that sealed the fate of many of the occupants. The stairs to the first floor had been removed, and the only other exit was blocked by the fire.

One victim was found near the basement exit in the rear of the house, where the fire appeared to have been the most intense, said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. The other six in the basement were not burned, Ayers said, but appeared to have suffered from smoke inhalation while huddling together at the other end of the room.

"It's a horrific sight," he said.

At least 10 people were in the house when the fire started, many of them Liberians who are part of a large and growing community in the Philadelphia area. Most of the occupants were in a basement living area, the children sleeping on the floor and the adults watching The Bourne Ultimatum, Murphy said.

The fire was reported at 10:47 p.m. Firefighters were on the scene within three minutes and had the fire under control in 33 minutes, Ayers said. But even that was too late to save six of the victims, who died at the scene. The seventh, a 1-year-old boy found near the exit, died just before midnight at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"We feel real tough about that," Ayers said.

News of the tragedy rippled through the Liberian community along the East Coast, where Liberians who fled their homeland as refugees have settled in the last 20 to 30 years. For much of yesterday, several dozen lingered near the Elmwood Avenue house. Many cried as they passed around a photograph of two of the dead children, taken at a birthday party in the last year.

Just before 11 a.m., the air damp with a misty rain, about a dozen men and women stood in a circle on the sidewalk in front of the home, held hands, and prayed.

"We will understand it better by and by," they sang.

"Thank you, Jesus!" said one man. "Out of every evil thing, God will turn it around and bring us something good."

Murphy, who was treated at a hospital and released, said the fire began when Christiana Teah, who lived in the house, poured fuel into the heater, and it ignited. He said he and Teah managed to escape by going through the fire to the only exit.

Michelle Dosso, who lost three children in the fire, said she had dropped them off Christmas Eve so they could join a gathering that included the father of one of them and his sister. She identified her children as Ramere Dosso, 8; Mariam Dosso, 6; and Zyhire Wright-Teah, 1.

Though Ramere and Mariam had a different father, the baby's father - Elliott Teah - and his relatives treated them all the same, Michelle Dosso said. Elliott Teah, 23, and his two sisters, Vivian Teah, 26, who was visiting from Maryland, and Jennifer, 17, died in the fire.

"On Christmas morning, they called me like 20 times," Michelle Dosso said of her children, who were to have returned to her home in Southwest Philadelphia yesterday morning. "They said, 'Mommy, I love you. We are having the best Christmas ever!' "

Inza Dosso, 47, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast who works as a parking attendant, said he last saw his children - Ramere and Mariam - Wednesday. "I give to them the gifts," Dosso said. "Clothes and everything they need."

Ayers, the fire commissioner, said the owner of the property was at work and not present when the fire erupted. According to the Board of Revisions of Taxes, the owner, Amelia Moiyallah, bought the house two years ago.

Charlene Rawlinson, who runs a day-care center next door, said the woman renovating the basement had lived there for about a year. A previous owner of the house, Mike Kingwood, said he sold it two years ago to an owner who did considerable renovations, adding at least three bedrooms and a bathroom to make it a nine-bedroom home.

The sheer number of casualties prompted Mayor Nutter to visit the scene after midnight, where he viewed the charred, three-story brick structure and mourned the loss of life.

"We are very saddened by this," Nutter said. "Firefighters put forth a tremendous effort, but this fire moved tremendously quickly."

No firefighters were injured. Six residents of an adjacent home were displaced by the fire, Ayers said, and were taken in by the Red Cross. He said they should be able to return to their home soon.

Ayers said the house had no smoke detectors. He said it had several kerosene heaters, in the basement and on the third floor.

"Outside of that, you see what people have when they are living their lives in a holiday season: pictures, the Holy Bible, clothes stacked," Ayers said.

According to the Fire Marshal's Office, the seven victims increased the city's fire deaths to 37 for the year, compared with 47 by this date last year. Fire deaths have been decreasing in recent decades because of improved fire-prevention strategies and milder winter weather, allowing residential occupants to avoid using risky home-heating methods.

"You need to have a home-escape plan, and you can't have a home-escape plan from a basement with only one exit. . . . We believe there was not proper egress from the basement," Ayers said.

Ayers said the Fire Department will supply smoke alarms to any city residents who request them. He urged people to equip every floor of their home with at least one detector and to use electric and kerosene space heaters with caution.

"Wintertime," he said, "is a tough time not to be safe."