Hundreds of decorative fish died this week when the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission flushed out a large pond at Kemp Mill Park in Wheaton as part of a routine cleaning.

But scores of other fish were saved by residents who worked through the night in a bucket and flashlight brigade along the banks of Sligo Creek, where water from the pond eventually was drained.

The bed and banks of a tributary feeding into Sligo Creek in the park behind the Kemp Mill Shopping Center on Arcola Road were littered for a quarter-mile with the bodies of the golden fish. Many more fish were buried in mud and the sludge that had been drained from the one-acre pond. The fish included carp and koi and ranged from two inches to more than a foot.

About 5,000 fish lived in the pond before the cleaning, according to a park official, who added that precautions were taken to protect the fish.

"Watching these fish just lie there and gasp for air was awful. It was cruel and inhumane," said Diane Anderson, a member of Save Our Streams, who said she had been monitoring some discharge into the creek Wednesday when she noticed the fish.

Anderson called members of the Maryland Legislation for Animal Welfare who worked with her until 4 a.m. Thursday scooping up fish swimming in puddles and buried in mud. They returned Thursday afternoon and again yesterday. They said area residents helped them return the fish to the refilled pond.

Carolyn Wainwright, community relations officer for the park department, said, "Certainly we did not wish to kill any fish . . . . and we did what we were capable of doing to save the fish."

She said that, as is customary when the pond is drained every two years, three work crews went through with buckets and scooped up as many fish as they could and were able to return three industrial size trash cans of fish to the pond after it was refilled.

The fish that were flushed from the pond into the tributary during drainage, she said, were mixed in the pond sludge and got caught on debris instead of going straight into Sligo Creek. Wainwright stressed that the cement-bottomed pond was never intended as a habitat for fish. She said someone in the community who likes fish probably placed the fish there originally.

"The problem was not the creation of park and planning but the creation of the community person who first put fish in the pond," she said. Wainwright estimated the fish population before the cleaning at 5,000.

Diane Nixon, of the Maryland Legislation for Animal Welfare, criticized park and planning for "just blundering ahead with no regard to the fish at all."

As well as the loss of life, the dead fish represent lost dollar values, Nixon said. One large koi would cost about $50, she said.

Virginia Thomas, with Lilypons Water Gardens, who specializes in outdoor ponds, said that a one-foot domestic koi costs between $100 to $150 while two- to three-inch goldfish cost $89.95 a hundred and larger goldfish can cost $4,000 a hundred. Thomas said she didn't think it was a good idea to release the decorative fish into creeks because "these fish are not meant to be kept out in the wild. It would be like releasing a poodle in a forest."

Wainwright said this is the first time the park agency has had this problem and is examining the situation so it can be avoided in the future.