A morning fire ripped through a row of Silver Spring apartment buildings yesterday, leaving 60 people homeless and injuring six Montgomery County firefighters, none seriously.

Investigators said the three-alarm fire at the Nob Hill Apartments in the 9000 block of Piney Branch Road began at 8:17 a.m., when a central air and heating unit on the rear balcony of the first floor malfunctioned, engulfing everything around it and sending flames up the back wall of the three-story, five-unit brick building.

Flames spread through a common attic space adjoining three other garden-style buildings. Asphalt shingles and wood on the roof caused the fire to "just go to town. That stuff burns easily," said Capt. Eric Ramacciogti, a fire department spokesman.

About 125 firefighters from Montgomery and Prince George's counties were summoned, and four Montgomery firefighters suffered minor burns to their faces and hands. They were treated at the Washington Hospital Center's burn unit, a hospital spokeswoman said.

A fifth Montgomery County firefighter suffered lacerations to his arms but remained on duty. He was taken to Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, where he was treated. The sixth firefighter sustained minor shoulder injuries and refused treatment, Ramacciogti said.

The American Red Cross has set up shelter for the 60 displaced residents at the Longbranch Community Recreation Center on Piney Branch Road.

Nikisha Williams, 15, watched the fire from her apartment across the street.

"We talk about things like this but never thought it would happen," said Williams, who said a friend escaped safely from the fire. "Now, we're all worried about stuff like this."

Fire officials estimated the blaze caused $1 million in structural damage to the four buildings and $40,000 in damage to the contents.

CAPTION: After getting the Silver Spring fire under control, firefighters tossed everything out of the badly burned apartment building to make sure nothing was smoldering.

CAPTION: Janice Whedbee, left, first noticed the fire when she heard dishes popping and breaking in an upstairs apartment. Fantu Ahmed, center, came home from work when she heard about the fire. Mary Lou Borge, right, with the daughter of a friend, lived in the building for 20 years and stopped by to see whether friends were okay.