Susan Dzialowy never hesitated. Her husband and children never had the chance to tell her goodbye.

The 27-year-old woman died Saturday, only a few hours after dashing back into her burning home to save her three youngsters, unaware they had already escaped."I went for groceries and wasn't gone more than 20 minutes. But by the time I got back, the only thing I saw was them pulling her out, her face covered with soot," John Dzialowy recalled Sunday.

"We were facing a rough Christmas as it was. I was out of work and we couldn't afford much anyway. . . . Nothing seemed to be going right, and now this," he added, his voice cracking.

"Lord, I don't know where we go from here."

Fire Department spokesman Bill Crowley said officials believe the fire was caused by a space heater in the family's Southwest Side apartment. He said a safety glass panel that should have covered the front of the heater was missing and flames apparently touched off some items nearby.

"Flames and smoke were shooting out windows when firefighters arrived," Crowley said. "When they learned the mother, who had escaped OK, had gone back inside, several firefighters went in to search for her."

Mrs. Dzialowy was found beneath a window in the rear bedroom, and firefighters attempted cardio-pulmonary resuscitation at the scene. She was taken to St. Anthony's Hospital.

There, Dzialowy, 31, and his children, Mary, 8, Kristin, 7, and John Jr., 5, maintained a vigil. Mrs. Dzialowy's mother, Kathy Kisla, said the children told their mother, "Mommy, get up. We want you to come home and have Christmas with us."

She never regained consciousness, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Dzialowy said he and his children are staying with his parents in suburban Palos Hills.

"My biggest problem right now is to find a job and scrape together enough money for a decent burial and a place for us to live," Dzialowy said.