A spectacular fire that one eyewitness called "simply frightening" destroyed six buildings in the heart of this historic mill town early today, resulting in an estimated $1 million to $2 million in damage but no injuries, police and fire officials said.

Merchants and residents said the fire was the worst calamity here since 1972, when flood waters from the nearby Patapsco River devastated a large section of the town during Hurricane Agnes. The town, an official historic district, has slowly revived since the flood and has a number of antique stores and restaurants.

Seven families who lived in apartments above businesses in the 1850s-era buildings were evacuated after the fire broke out, about 11 p.m. Wednesday, apparently in Leidig's Bakery on Main Street. Red Cross and civil defense officials were finding housing and other help for the families today, a county spokesman said.

The six-alarm blaze gutted five other stores on Main Street before firefighters brought it under control about 3:25 a.m.

"It was frightening, simply frightening," said Roger D. Marino, 47, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and owner of Marino's Galleries, one of the stores destroyed by the fire.

Marino was attending a business meeting at Chez Fernand, a French restaurant next to the bakery, when the fire started.

"I left the restaurant and by the time I walked home, a few minutes from here, the phone was ringing. It was a friend telling me my store was on fire," Marino said.

Fernand Tersiguel, 42, owner of the popular restaurant, which was destroyed in the blaze, said one of his employes reported the fire after he spotted smoke in an apartment.

"I could cry it's so sad," said Susan Healy, 29, an Ellicott City native who watched this afternoon as heavy construction equipment leveled the remains of the buildings, which officials said were in danger of collapsing. The buildings dated to the mid-1800s, when Healy's ancestors settled in Howard County.

Charles M. Cronauer, area supervisor for the state fire marshal's office, said investigators from his office, aided by agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would begin attempting to determine the cause of the fire Friday.

Fire officials said the fire spread rapidly through the dry timber in the six buildings because there were no masonary walls separating them to block the flames. Such fire breaks are now required by law in new construction, he said.

"I have to give the fire department a super plus for containing the fire's spread," Cronauer said.

In all, 25 fire trucks and 150 firefighters and other personnel responded to the scene. By late this afternoon an acrid pall hung over downtown Ellicott City as smoke continued to pour from the site.

County Executive J. Hugh Nichols said in a prepared statement that the county Community Development Office would work with the state Community Development Administration to reserve low interest loans for the businesses that needed them.

Chamber of Commerce President Marino said such a devestating fire on the eve of the Christmas season would hurt other downtown businesses as well.

"I intend to rebuild. I'm committed to Ellicott City, but I think we're going to need some help," he said.