Kamini Dalal spent Christmas Eve resting in a room at Washington Hospital Center, her long, curly black hair singed and her petite body burned severely. Dalal, 30, is deaf and could not hear the comforting voices of the doctors who upgraded her condition to fair the day before.
She was in a better place than where she had been: the hospital's intensive care unit, in critical condition, after the Frederick apartment she shared with her daughter was destroyed in a fire Thursday morning.
By all accounts, 7-year-old Ashley Dalal saved her mother's life. She smelled the smoke. She saw the flames coming from her mother's bedroom, and she rushed in to wake her.
"She is probably the bravest kid I've ever seen," said Frederick police officer Jerry Morales, who responded to the emergency along with firefighters.
With burns on 40 percent of her body, Ashley was in critical but stable condition yesterday at Boston Shriners Hospital, which specializes in treating children with burns.
And that's where Dalal surely wants to be, by Ashley's side, friends say.
Mother and daughter are nearly inseparable. Their lives revolve around the Frederick Towne Mall square. Their apartment, Ashley's school and the crafts and sewing store where Dalal is a stock clerk are within about 1 1/2 miles from one another.
The Saturday before the fire, Ashley spun on a stool at Jo-Ann Etc. until she was dizzy while Dalal unpacked boxes of sewing supplies -- bobbins, La Mode buttons and 10 types of elastic. Dalal's small frame caused many people to mistake the two for sisters.
"I said [to Ashley], 'That can't be your mom because she doesn't look old enough to have a girl your age,' " said Jane Horner, 54, of Falling Waters, W.Va., who works with Dalal at the store.
Ashley and her mother had started last week in high holiday spirits.
They attended a winter concert last Monday night at Waverley Elementary School in Frederick, where Ashley is in second grade. Ashley was too young to perform, and Dalal couldn't hear the music, but they were there anyway, said Michelle Kight, PTA president at Waverley.
"From what I've seen, she was a very involved mother," Kight said.
Then there was a holiday party at the store Wednesday. They had cider, cookies, chips and chocolate. Dalal went for the chocolate.
That night, after a six-hour work shift, Dalal apparently lighted a candle on her nightstand and fell asleep, according to police. Ashley went to bed excited about a school field trip to a science lab the next day.
Shortly after midnight, Matthew Neumeier, who lives across the hall from the Dalals on the first floor of the three-story building, was flipping channels between "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and the "Late Show With David Letterman" when he heard what sounded like a child crying. He thought an argument was going on, but the cries grew louder. They started to sound more like screams.
It was Ashley. When Neumeier opened his door, he saw the little girl in the hallway, crying for help at the top of her lungs. Her mother was crumpled on the floor next to her, clothing still on fire. Smoke billowed out of their apartment door.
Neumeier, 26, said he extinguished the burning clothes, scooped up Dalal and carried her outside. Then he ran around the complex, wearing khaki pants but no shirt, banging on windows and telling people to get out. Meanwhile, Ashley comforted her mother.
"She was a real trouper," Neumeier said. "I can't believe she was so burned and worrying about her mom."
Fire engines filled the parking lot behind the apartment building. A police helicopter flew Dalal to Washington Hospital Center and Ashley to Children's Hospital in Washington.
Ashley was transferred to Boston Shriners Hospital within 24 hours. She likely will spend at least another month there, hospital spokesman Dick Burgess said.
Officials have had a hard time finding relatives of Dalal and her daughter, but they have had no problem finding friends.
Frederick police have started to collect Christmas toys for Ashley. The local firefighters union is organizing efforts to help the family. Dalal's co-workers have set up a fund for the family, through Bank of America, to help with medical bills.
Jo-Ann Etc. is planning a craft and bake sale Jan. 4. And the Waverley PTA will take donations for the Dalals at an upcoming dance.
Neumeier sat in his apartment on a recent afternoon, mulling ways he could help. The hallway still smelled of smoke. He said he didn't have a lot of cash -- the holidays had taken their toll. And there was not much in his bachelor pad that would appeal to a 7-year-old.
But he dug out a wrinkled slip of paper -- a $200 Southwest Airlines voucher. He wasn't planning to use it, he said. And once Dalal gets out of the hospital, it might help her get to Boston to be with Ashley.
"I just walked out and saw" the fire, Neumeier said. He didn't know the family well before that, he said, but "now I feel kind of connected."