Howard County's fire chief looked at the boarded-up patio door to the apartment where the blaze had broken out, then looked to the two balconies above where residents had stood, awakened from sleep by smoke and flames, trapped and waiting to be saved.
"I'm impressed," William Goddard, chief of the county's department of fire and rescue, said as he walked outside of the building about 10 hours after the first crews arrived.
"A lot of lives saved here," he said.
There were 34 people in the 12 apartments at 5638 Stevens Forest Road in Oakland Mills, where a two-alarm fire inside a first-floor apartment left those in the building scrambling for their lives in the middle of the night. All got out alive.
Three residents were transported to Howard County General Hospital: a man who suffered second-degree burns and was in critical condition, an adult male suffering from smoke inhalation, and a child with asthma, according to department spokeswoman Jackie Cutler.
Four others were treated at the scene and released, Battalion Chief Gordon Wallace told The Baltimore Sun.
Damage to the building forced its residents to find shelter elsewhere.
Firefighters were called to the Autumn Crest apartment complex in the Talbott Springs neighborhood at about 1:15 a.m. for a call of smoke coming from an apartment building. Police officers were the first on the scene and advised the fire department that there was a fire and that people might be trapped, according to Battalion Chief Christine Uhlhorn-List, who was one of the first from the fire department to arrive.
She saw heavy fire coming from a first-floor apartment on the back side of the three-story building.
"There were dozens of residents already outside in the street. There was a little bit of hysteria. Power was out. People were still on balconies," Uhlhorn-List said.
Some were waving white sheets or pillowcases to capture firefighters' attention. Some wanted to jump but were told to wait for firefighters to help.
The rescues had already begun beforehand as residents helped get their neighbors out. Some people who already had escaped approached rescuers to let them know there were still others missing.
Firefighters rescued seven from the building, at least five of whom were brought down on ladders from the two balconies directly above the apartment where the fire began, Uhlhorn-List said. Fire was blowing out from underneath those balconies, and the smoke at times was so heavy that the battalion chief had difficulty seeing her crews.
"After we made the most obvious rescues, there were people inside saying, 'There's too much smoke and fire,' and they couldn't get out," she said. "We went in and searched."
That the fire was largely contained to where it began, in the first-floor apartment, was crucial, Goddard said, keeping flames from spreading to other floors and to an adjacent building.
Said Uhlhorn-List: "With so many victims needing to be rescued, if we had not kept that fire in check we would've been rescuing people that would've been very seriously injured, and it would've made our rescue efforts very difficult."
Between 75 and 90 emergency responders were on the scene. The fire was under control within half an hour, and the flames were completely out after another 45 minutes, Cutler said.
The apartment building did not have a sprinkler system, though there was a working smoke alarm in the apartment where the fire began, she said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
By late Thursday morning, investigators had left and the cleanup was under way. Eleven windows at the rear of the building had been boarded up. A small child's purple tricycle rested, overturned, atop a large silver tarp.
A red sign had been affixed to a board covering the patio door to the apartment where the fire began: "This building is unsafe."
With smoke and water damage throughout the building, all of the residents had been forced out. Some had gone to friends and family, while others had received hotel vouchers from The American Red Cross, according to David Brocklebank, regional property manager for Grady Management, which owns Autumn Crest.
"From here we just try to find them homes," Brocklebank said. The complex, which has about two dozen buildings containing a total of 300 apartments, only had one vacancy. He said the company was contacting other nearby apartment complexes to see if they had anything available.