Gerald "Gerry" Gore spotted the bright orange flame on a balcony railing of an apartment building as he exited Interstate 795 on the morning after Christmas.
The Union Mills resident pulled over and called 911. He then ran down an embankment, climbed a tree to get over a fence and pounded on doors until someone let him in.
Gore said this week that he "sort of panicked a little bit" when he looked down.
"I saw I was standing on a retirement community welcome mat," he said.
Gore was honored yesterday, along with county workers, business and community leaders and others who helped evacuate the Meadows at Reisterstown senior apartments and later settled more than five dozen residents in new homes.
"This truly was the most beautiful example of caring, of people caring for people," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.
At least four people suffered minor injuries in the blaze, first reported just before 8 a.m. Dec. 26, according to news reports.
Investigators were unable to determine the cause, said county fire department communications director Elise Armacost. However, they established that the fire began in the attic space, she said.
Robert M. Couch, president of Centrum Management LLC, which co-owns and manages two senior buildings at that site, said the company plans to reopen the facility in the future, though it remains uninhabitable now. After the fire, part of the roof collapsed and damage increases with every snowfall, said Trudy McFall, chairwoman of Homes for America, Centrum's partner.
Neither Couch nor McFall could estimate when work would begin.
Couch thanked those who had contributed to a fund for the residents. The money will be distributed among all the residents in two weeks, he said.
Many at yesterday's ceremony offered thanks to a second man who Gore said also pulled off the road and helped evacuate residents. Police records did not include his name, county officials said.
Gore, 46, was headed home from his shift as foreman at a CSX repair shop in Brooklyn when he saw the flames.
When he entered the building, he said the fire alarm had gone off and sprinklers had activated. He and the other man ran up and down the halls knocking on doors. Then, Gore said he assisted people down the stairs and into the adjacent Meadows building.
"I'm very proud of my dad," said Gore's 9-year-old son, Jay, after his father accepted his award from county officials. "If it wasn't for him, probably all those elderly people would have died or gotten hurt."
Most Meadows residents, including Rose Marie Miller, assumed it was just a drill. Fire alarms had gone off five times recently, so the 68-year-old believed there was no reason to worry.
But when she stepped onto her first-floor patio, she saw smoke. Miller and another woman struggled to get Miller's 80-year-old husband, Edward, into his wheelchair. Miller was trying to get him down the two stairs off the patio when Gore appeared and helped.
In the weeks that followed, staff from the county departments of social services, aging and health helped the residents find new accommodations. Most have moved into other senior complexes, including about 20 to the neighboring Meadows building.
Volunteers from area churches, synagogues, businesses, the American Red Cross and others donated money, supplies and labor to help them replace lost items.
Ann Wheeler, a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Glyndon's Sacred Heart Church, said more than 30 church members gave of their time, helping the seniors move. Parishioners also provided cash to purchase furniture.
Yesterday's reunion allowed residents, some of whom have moved to Anne Arundel or Carroll counties, to catch up with former neighbors and those who helped them relocate.
Arnold J. Eppel, director of the department of aging said to the group, "The miraculous thing about Dec. 26 is that you are all here," he said.