It was an eerie, almost surreal, scene as D.C. firefighter Donald Derner stepped out of the smoking, run-down Southeast apartment building and saw the two black women standing on the sidewalk, one of them holding a white baby. He had been thinking about babies all day, ever since he had read an article in The Washington Post Magazine about Jeremiah Thate, the infant snatched from his hospital crib in June.

Derner's hunch on that routine fire call on Oct. 11 led eventually to the discovery of the Thate baby -- filthy but apparently healthy -- in a squalid apartment Wednesday.

The coincidence was one of several bizarre elements in a case that had seemed destined to have an unhappy ending: County police said yesterday that the infant, then 3 weeks old and weighing 9 1/2 pounds, was taken from a hospital by a woman who had recently suffered a miscarriage and who lived in a boarded-up dwelling at 748 Howard Rd. SE with her mother.

Police said the woman told investigators that she went to Prince George's General Hospital seeking employment and did not intend to abduct a baby. But when she saw the Thate baby in a room on the sixth floor, he smiled at her and she decided to take him with her, they said.

For the next four months, the unlikely trio apparently lived together in the rat-infested, trash-strewn apartment that stank of human waste. The women often dressed the baby in girls' clothing, but addressed him as Jeremiah, police said. Although the infant was suffering from pneumonia when he was abducted -- a circumstance that led police and his parents to fear for his life -- he was returned to his family fat-cheeked and weighing a hefty 18 pounds.

The women, identified as Linda Faye Stancil, 34, and her mother, Lillie Rose Baynes, 50, were charged with kidnaping and held yesterday in lieu of $50,000 bond in the Prince George's County Correctional Center. A bond review hearing is set for 2 p.m. today.

Police said neither had a criminal record or a history of mental illness.

The child's discovery came at a time when police investigators, if not Jeremiah's parents, had virtually abandoned hope. In the first week after the disappearance, 30 county detectives were assigned to the investigation, but the case had recently been assigned to one officer who had other duties.

"After so many months," said Sgt. Randy Baker, who heads the department's Domestic Violence Unit, "we did not think we would see Jeremiah Thate again. We thought he had been taken and sold or taken out of the area to be raised by the kidnaper."

The infant was reported missing from his crib on the hospital's sixth-floor pediatric ward about 4:50 p.m. on June 11. His parents, Rob and Theresa Thate of Hyattsville, had left the room briefly to visit the hospital canteen. When Theresa Thate returned, the crib was empty and the intravenous tubes attached to the infant's arm had been severed. A Wilson gym bag that had contained some of Theresa Thate's clothing was also missing.

Almost immediately, police began searching for a white woman, described as having a dark-blond ponytail, who was seen by a hospital employe in the Thates' room just before the abduction. The Thates made tearful televised appeals to the kidnaper: "Please do not compound your crime," Robert Thate said at one news conference. "Please do not dump him in a garbage can somewhere. I ask you to be compassionate to us and our child."

After the Oct. 11 article by magazine writer Walt Harrington detailed Rob Thate's continued anger and frustration over his missing child, the police department received hundreds of leads, including Derner's information. Eight days later, on Oct. 19, police received another tip with the same information -- two black women with a white baby at a Howard Road address.

Police said their delay in checking out the tip stemmed from their continued belief that the abductor had been the ponytailed woman.

When county detectives Dwight DeLoatch and Greg Jones finally knocked on the Howard Road apartment about 3 p.m. Wednesday, police said, Stancil answered the door. At first she denied there was a baby in the apartment. Then the officers heard crying and asked to see the baby. They were told the child was female. When the officers determined the baby was indeed a boy, the women agreed to accompany them to county police headquarters in Forestville.

Police returned to look for evidence linking the women to Jeremiah's hospital room: an IV needle, a hospital identification, the gym bag. They found none of those.

But officers did find a baby's car seat, a baby stroller, several jars of baby food, a box of Farina -- and a incredibly dirty and desolate environment. The plumbing didn't work. Buckets served as toilets. Empty vodka bottles and rat droppings covered the floor. Across the hall was the burned-out apartment that had brought Derner and other firefighters to the building on Oct. 11.

The apartment was eight miles from the Thate home in Hyattsville, but it was also worlds away -- a place to live furtively and unnoticed.

Neighbors said the two women, who apparently had broken into the abandoned apartment, generally kept to themselves. Sometimes they begged for food. They were frequently seen pushing a baby carriage.

During 11 hours of questioning that ended at 5 a.m. yesterday, Stancil allegedly told police that she went to the hospital on June 11 in search of a job. How she got from the personnel office on the second floor, where there is no record of her appearance, to Jeremiah's room on the sixth floor, is unclear, police said.

Once there, Stancil cut the IV tube, police sources said, leaving the needle in the infant's arm. Then she emptied the gym bag, lifted Jeremiah from his crib and placed him in the bag. She walked out of the hospital undetected, apparently to begin a new life as the child's mother.

"It does not appear that she was going to do anything with him except raise Jeremiah as her own," said Capt. Anthony Leo, head of Prince George's criminal investigation division. "There was no other motivation."

Police noted that Stancil recently had a miscarriage, but they would not say exactly when it occurred.

Suspects in similar cases have been women who recently had a miscarriage, had an infant die or want to bear children but cannot, police said. Because of that profile, within days of Jeremiah's abduction, detectives and FBI agents scanned lists provided by the Prince George's Hospital Center and other area hospitals of patients who have had miscarriages in the last year.

Stancil's name was not on any list.

Yesterday, investigators said Stancil told them she had recently miscarried but did not seek treatment at a hospital.

Stancil's mother also has been charged with kidnaping, though police said Stancil acted alone in the abduction.

"I don't think there was any doubt in the mother's mind that the baby was Jeremiah Thate," Leo said.

Yesterday the apartment where Jeremiah was kept was unlocked and reporters and camera crews streamed through.

In the living room on a battered sideboard lay an employment application and an instruction booklet for obtaining a visa to a foreign country. A cut-glass vase with six dusty, red silk roses provided the only decoration. On a bookshelf was an incomplete application for emergency food assistance dated Feb. 19 and signed by Baynes.

In answer to the question of why the applicant needed such assistance, Baynes had written, "because I don't have any food or money to buy food."

Neighbors said the two women broke into an abandoned apartment in the row of units in the shadow of the Anacostia Freeway about a year ago. In June, they were evicted from that apartment and moved down the row of brick buildings, apparently breaking into another apartment.

Mary Q. Puryear, 72, said that Stancil, sometimes dressed in a white uniform, came to Puryear's home occasionally to use the phone or beg for food.

"She came in and asked me for some bread, cheese and a can of milk," Puryear said yesterday.

On one occasion, Puryear said, Stancil tried to sell her canned food. But it was the behavior of Baynes that concerned Puryear the most.

"I have seen her going up and down the street with a baby doll like this, just a huggin' and a shakin'," Puryear said, making a cradling motion.

"But I never saw a real baby. They must've kept it in the house for four months. If I'd saw her with that baby, I'd have called first thing. In fact, I would've asked where she got a baby."

Dressed in a red jumper decorated with a teddy bear, Jeremiah Thate appeared at a news conference in his father's arms yesterday, after his first night back with his parents and his brother and sister. The child's weight has doubled during his absence, and except for skin rash, doctors said he has been well-nourished and is functioning neurologically at the correct age level.

Experts in child psychology said yesterday that his emotional development should not be hampered by the ordeal. They said infants less than 6 months old who are fed and kept warm are unlikely to be affected by separations from their natural parents, even if they are living in conditions as deprived as those in the Howard Road apartment.

As Jeremiah rested his head on his father's shoulder yesterday, he turned occasionally in the direction of the cameras, his blue eyes darting at the noises. "He slept the whole night through," Rob Thate said.

Someone asked the couple how they knew it was their baby when they first saw Jeremiah on Wednesday night; his appearance has understandably changed in four months. Blood tests and footprints have verified that the child is theirs, but Theresa Thate said she would have known anyway. "He looked just like our daughter," she said.

For the Thates, the jubilation of the moment seemed to overshadow the hurts of the last few months, including the early questioning of Robert Thate as a possible suspect. "I feel vindicated," he said yesterday.

The Thates' attorney, Craig L. Silver of Rockville, refused to say whether the family would sue Prince George's Hospital Center, but said, "It's going to be my intention to see that they are going to be adequately compensated."

Jeremiah Thate, his head lolling on his father's shoulder, knows nothing of the anguish and the uncertainty of the past months. Someday, however, he'll be ready to hear the full story, his parents said.

Theresa Thate said her son will receive "all the videotapes" of the newscasts covering the story and all the newspaper clips.

He will, she said, know "everything, the truth" about his first summer.

Staff writers Keith Harriston, Jeffrey Yorke, Retha Hill, Leah Y. Latimer, Sari Horwitz, Lynne Duke and Walt Harrington contributed to this report.