A two-alarm fire routed sleepy-eyed residents from a three-story garden apartment complex at 2348 Ainger Pl. SE shortly before 6 a.m. yesterday, leaving 12 families homeless and three people injured, D.C. fire officials reported.

When the fire broke out in the building, located just off Alabama Avenue, most residents were either asleep or rising to go to work. Frank Dawson, however, was outside, coming in from the night before.

"I heard a cry, 'My baby! My baby!'", Dawson recalled yesterday. Looking up, he saw a small child beating at the glass door to the balcony of a third-floor apartment. He said the living room was engulfed in flames.

"It was a hell of a feeling to see that little baby scratching at that window." Dawson said he tried to climb the fire escape, but could not.

Inside, meanwhile, Otis Nutall, the 65-year-old resident manager of the complex, said he had just finished sweeping the hall when he heard his next-door neighbor screaming for his wife to open the door. The man was locked outside in his night clothes and at first, Nutall said, he thought the couple was having a fight.

"I asked him what was wrong. He said the house was on fire. I said, 'Why didn't you say that instead of hollering to open the door?'"

Nutall said he began yelling, "Fire," and helped the man kick in the door.

"The blaze just jumped in our face. He went in and got his wife and two kids. The oldest girl was carrying the baby."

The three were identified as Cecil Lloyd, 31, and Clementine McCall, 28. Both were listed in serious condition at Washington Hospital Center, suffering from smoke inhalation and first and second-degree burns on the face, neck, head and arms. Chandra McCall, 10, was treated at Children's Hospital and released, a hospital spokesperson said.

The Red Cross relocated 24 people, representing eight families, to a motel on New York Avenue. The remaining residents moved in with family members and friends. Residents said the building did not have smoke detectors.

"It was something else. I had to get four people out," said resident Anita Streeter.