In one corner of the Takoma Park Municipal Center, the 4- and 5-year-olds of the Modern Day Nursery sat together and sang Christmas carols.
In another corner, 77-year-old Mamie Drummond, still in her bedroom slippers, a woolen sweater draped across her legs, stroked a neighbor's puppy as housewives wandered over periodically to catch glimpses of the afternoon soap operas on a small black-and-white TV set that the Red Cross had set up.
A few hours earlier, the normal afternoon routines of Drummond and the others had been broken when they evacuated their homes after a series of explosions, followed by fires in 13 houses, jolted their tree-lined Takoma Park neighborhood.
With the danger past, a somewhat festive atmosphere prevailed at the red and green bedecked municipal center meeting room, which had been set up as a temporary shelter for the evacuees.
About 6:20 p.m., as families waited for buses that would take them back home, Santa Claus arrived and entertained the restless children.
For Arquimedes McDonald, 21, there was no home to return to. McDonald, a security guard for Beltway Plaza, lived in one of the two houses that Prince George's officials said were severely damaged by fire.
"I was asleep -- I had just worked 16 hours -- when my wife woke me up and said there was a fire in the basement," he said.
McDonald said he put on his pants and ran to the basement, where the family's three dogs were barking. But flames and black smoke drove him away.
"The dogs were barking but very quickly they became quiet when the smoke got heavy," McDonald said.
His wife and father, who also were at home, escaped injury. But the young couple's belongings stored in the basement were destroyed, he said.
His brother, Alex McDonald, 19, a painter, said he lost $600 in cash that he had stashed away to buy Christmas presents.
More than 100 people who lived in the area of Westmoreland Avenue and Sycamore Street were taken to the municipal center.
There, Red Cross workers supplied Pampers and infant formula for the babies and hamburgers, french fries, juice and cookies for everyone. The Red Cross also arranged for the sick and the elderly to get required medication from Washington Adventist Hospital, three blocks from the center.
Most of the evacuees said they first realized something was wrong when they smelled a stong odor of gas in their neighborhood.
"It was like someone had poured gas out in front of you. It was that strong a smell, strong enough to knock you down," said Bill Hanger, 52, who was working on the interior of a house on Poplar Avenue.
But most, like Gregory Boyd, 34, and his pregnant wife Stephanie, 30, who live on Eastern Avenue on the Maryland-District line, became aware of the problem when they saw smoke coming from a house on Westmoreland Avenue, and heard police broadcasting the emergency over loudspeakers in patrol cars.
Some residents worried about looting because officials told them to leave the windows open and front doors unlocked so that firefighters could get in to check the gas pipes.
"Our homes are open," said Clara Greene, 35, of the 6700 block of Westmoreland Avenue. "Who is going to guard them tonight?"
Later, Takoma Park city administrator Alvin Nichols told the residents their homes were being watched by police from Takoma Park and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Many of the evacuees said they felt officials had handled the emergency well.