January 12, 2004 12:00 PM

On Dec. 7 photographer Thaddeus Harden took his daughter Audrey shopping to buy a new outfit. The occasion was twofold: On Dec. 10 Audrey would wear the satin-taffeta dress to the premiere of Mona Lisa Smile, the Julia Roberts movie costarring her aunt Marcia Gay Harden. Even more important, Audrey would be celebrating her 10th birthday that evening. “I was proud to be buying her such a pretty outfit,” says Thaddeus, 40. “She loved feeling glamorous.”

It would be the last such outing for Audrey, who died just days after the premiere following a Dec. 14 fire at her family’s New York City apartment. The devastating blaze also claimed the lives of Audrey’s 6-year-old brother Sander and the children’s mother, Thaddeus Harden’s ex-wife Rebecca Harden, 37. For Thaddeus and the rest of his family, the loss is unspeakable. At a Dec. 20 memorial service, Thaddeus’s sister Marcia Gay Harden, 44—who’s well into her second pregnancy—said of her niece and nephew, who often visited her Catskills lake house, “Holding them in our memory is keeping us from falling into total despair.” Their father holds his memories especially dear. “With Sander, just eating a strawberry was fun,” says Thaddeus. ” ‘Honkin’ strawberries!’ he would call them.” As for Audrey, “she was my adventure buddy,” he says. “Everywhere we went became an adventure.”

The tragedy unfolded in the New York City neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, where Audrey, Sander and their mother (who split from Thaddeus in ’98) shared a duplex apartment. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, the children were seen laughing and throwing snowballs outside their home. Soon after they went inside, the building was ablaze. “I saw humongous orange flames,” recalls neighbor Sabrina Caruso. New York City firefighters were on the scene almost immediately, but it was too late: It took only minutes for the family to be overcome by the smoke and flames. Sander was pronounced dead at the scene; Audrey and Rebecca died days later. (No one else was harmed.)

According to FDNY spokesman Mike Loughran, the blaze (which was ruled an accident) was caused by candles that came in contact with a sofa or futon. Such candle-related house fires have increased nationwide, especially during the holidays (see box). In Queens those who knew the close-knit family are still in shock. “She doted on her children,” neighbor Thomas Manton says of Rebecca, a textile designer who had shared custody of the kids with Thaddeus Harden. Adds Lisa Anselmo, Thaddeus’s girlfriend of three years: “They were funny, smart, golden children.” Sander was the resident dinosaur expert and warm fuzzy. “He would give unsolicited ‘I love yous,’ ” says Anselmo. And Audrey, an aspiring songwriter and guitarist, “was outgoing and charismatic,” says Phil Campanella, the girl’s former singing teacher at the Singers Forum, a Manhattan music school. “I could see her being an actress like her aunt.”

With those dreams no longer to be, the family must now tend to their grief. Thaddeus Harden and Anselmo have established a fund at the Singers Forum to benefit underprivileged kids in Audrey and Sander’s honor. “I enjoyed the simple moments most with my children,” says Thaddeus. “I enjoyed telling them bedtime stories. I loved kissing them goodnight and telling them that I loved them—that I was a lucky dad.”

Michelle Tauber. Diane Herbst in New York City

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