A fast-moving freight train traveling through Laurel at 3 a.m. yesterday derailed after slamming into a bulldozer apparently left on the tracks by vandals. Four engines and 14 rail cars came to a screeching halt in a twisted pile just 25 feet from a garden apartment complex, jolting residents from their sleep.

None of the four crew members aboard the train was injured, but at least 50 residents of the Briarwood Apartments were evacuated after a diesel fuel tank on one of the engines ruptured, spewing fuel and causing a two-alarm fire, a fire department spokesman said.

"The whole floor was vibrating," said Denise Cosentino, who was sleeping in an apartment building near the tracks. "The whole place was shaking, and there was this incredible roar like thunder."

The apartment dwellers were taken to a nearby community center, where they remained about two hours until firefighters doused the blaze and determined that there was no other threat of fire or explosion, the spokesman said.

The accident occurred at 3 a.m. yesterday, when a 50-car Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train, traveling at 50 miles per hour, slammed into a bulldozer that had been parked in the railroad right-of-way with its scoop over the tracks, according to railroad officials. The southbound train was on a nonstop run from Wilmington, Del., to East St. Louis, Ill., officials said. Rail cars weighing 60 to 80 tons each -- at least eight of them loaded with new automobiles -- came to a screeching, earth-shaking halt on the spot in an accordion-like pile of steel. Heavy steel train wheels were strewn about, and the rails of the track were torn up and twisted for more than 500 feet.

Yesterday, Prince George's County police said the bulldozer had been stolen from a nearby construction site and driven to the tracks just south of the Cherry Lane overpass a half mile east of Rte. 1. An investigation is under way, they said.

Gary L. Gibson, supervisor of operations for the railroad, said the bulldozer was obscured from the engineer's view by the overpass and darkness. Railroad crews immediately began to clear the area, and Gibson said he did not expect the line to be reopened until tomorrow. He said no damage estimate was available.

Yesterday, a crowd of more than 100 persons, many dressed in their Sunday best, stopped by Cherry Lane en route from church to watch crews clear the tracks, lending an almost festive air to the scene.

For many of the nearby apartment residents, however, the derailment was a jolting start to what otherwise would have been a routine Sunday at home during the Labor Day weekend.

"We didn't know what was happening until we heard all our neighbors screaming that a train had derailed," said Cosentino, who was staying overnight with a friend at the apartment complex. "We went outside and the fumes from the diesel fuel were incredible. We could hardly breathe."

Gerard Dinardo, an apartment resident, said he heard the sound of a diesel engine, which may have come from the bulldozer, shortly before 3 a.m. Minutes later, he said, he heard a roar like "rolling thunder" that lasted about 15 seconds.

"I was amazed at the extent of the damage. It's miraculous that no one was hurt," he said.