An explosion and fire late last month at the Carriage Hills apartment complex in Temple Hills, Md., destroyed 12 apartments, and left 12 others uninhabitable. The flames and smoke engulfed the building in less than 10 minutes. The Post reported the facts of this tragedy but missed the human drama of the first few minutes of fear, risk and sacrifice. We saw how our neighborhood consists of many good people doing good things; their stories are just not told as often or as loudly. The neighbors who ran great risks to rescue those in greater danger demonstrated the essence of community.
Mostly infants, children and the elderly were at home in the apartments at the time. All miraculously made it to safety without serious injury. The selfless acts of many honorable people helped this happen. They braved the blinding smoke, shooting flames, blowing cinders and ground-shaking explosions to grasp babies and adults whose only escape was to jump from balconies. These rescuers risked life and limb without hesitation.
The sound of a gut-wrenching explosion and a concussion wave that rattled and broke surrounding windows took our breath away. It interrupted our morning conversations in mid-sentence. As we sprang to action, our minds raced: Accident? Bomb? Terrorist?
We ran toward the burning building. Families were on the balconies, some with dark thick smoke already pouring out behind them. We all understood the order of rescue. The adults dropped babies to us, knowing that the risk of the fall far outweighed the certainty of remaining. On the ground, those who accepted the duty to catch feared missing more than anything.
The volume of smoke increased so quickly that it turned a clear sunny morning into dusk. Children came next, jumping from the second and third floors. Flames were jumping 10 to 12 feet from second-floor windows. Flaming cinders and ash accompanied the dense, blinding smoke, making it hard to breathe. The heat singed hair on our arms and the temperature increased by the second. To complicate matters, another explosion increased the terror and danger to all.
People continued to join the rescue effort. We were helping families from the first tier of balconies when a family of an elderly female, an infant and two 7- or 8-year-olds appeared on the third floor of an adjacent tier. The situation was worsened by a third explosion with a corresponding increase in smoke and flames.
A brave man climbed onto the balcony of the second floor to form a human chain to retrieve the family. At about the same time an elderly gentleman appeared stunned and dazed through the heavy smoke pouring from his second floor balcony. Yet another heroic young person placed himself in harm's way by climbing through the black smoke and intense heat to help the gentleman to the ground.
As the burning building disappeared behind the haze, firefighters arrived and warned us to get away from the building. One person was still on the third floor balcony. He, understandably, was afraid to jump. The firefighters used their ladder.
A young woman then appeared through the dense smoke struggling with two babies. A teen handed me his designer jacket to wrap the baby. Someone said the last person got out. Once safely out of the smoke, this baby, who had fallen three stories, went to sleep in my arms amid the noise and panic.