An early morning fire apparently caused by faulty wiring routed 45 people from their Northeast Washington apartment building yesterday, causing heavey damage to the building and its contents.

Firefighters and police were forced to lead 20 of the residents through the building's smoke-filled hallways to safety before they could bring the 4 a.m. blaze under control, officials said.

The tenants, most of whom were shoeless and dressed only in pajamas, watched in sub-freezing temperatures as flames shot through the roof of the building, causing an estimated $10,000 damage to the structure and another $30,000 to the contents.

All the tenants were being housed temporarily in Master Hosts Inn at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. For most of them, the fire left their Crristmas plans in shambles.

"I'll just have to pray," said aileen Shorter, a cosmetologist, who, with her two sons, has lived in the building at 332 Seaton Pl. NE for almost a year. "I was really scared. It was freezing, it was icy outside. This has been a nightmare."

Shorter said she was sleeping in a back bedroom when the pounding of neighbors and firefighters on her front door wakened her. She and her children raced into the street without shoes. Shorter was wearing only her nightgown.

"I hope we'll be able to get someplace (to live) before Christmas," said Laverne Bragg, mother of six, as she and her children, some still in their pajamas, sat in their hotel room watching television and talking to relatives yesterday afternoon.

According to Pat Mitchell, who escaped with her four children, flames were shooting up through her kitchen from the apartment below when she fled to safety.

She later returned to the apartment to pick up some belongings and found the building "a disaster, with the roof hanging" loosely on the three-story structure.

The Major's Command Center reported that because the building is so heavily damaged the city housing department is taking applications from the victims for emergency relocation housing. The dozen displaced families will be housed for several days in the motel, where the Red Cross is paying for their room and board, until the new homes can be found, officials said.

The fire began on the first floor in a wall, investigators said. Apparently leaking water shortcircuited the building's wiring, triggering the blaze.

There were no reports of injuries, officials said.

In an unrelated fire at 1317 Emerson St. NW yesterday afternoon, a fireman was treated and released for smoke inhalation after a resident reported smoke in her kitchen. There was no estimate of damages and the cause was under investigation.