When the Ocean City Aquarium caught fire, firefighters feared its dozens of snakes, sharks and alligators were dead--until an 18-foot python slithered up through the ashes.

Then two large alligators appeared, and a few turtles.

And the firefighters' attention shifted to which creatures were still alive and lurking in the next puddle as they stomped through the aquarium's charred ruins in the dark.

"It would be hard to explain how one of your men got bit by a caiman while he was fighting a fire," Fire Capt. Bill McDonnell said early today as he helped direct cautious firefighters into the building after the flames had been extinguished.

The smoke and flames killed more than 60 reptiles and 100 fish and sharks.

Among the survivors: 20 turtles, 12 alligators and crocodiles, three boa constrictors, two pythons and a moray eel, said aquarium owner Angelo Cuculino.

The fire early Saturday evening destroyed the 1 1/2-story pink stucco building that housed the four-year-old aquarium, which attracted about 40,000 visitors a year. A neighbor reported hearing an explosion, but by the time firefighters arrived, the aquarium was engulfed in flames.

One of the first animals spotted on the scene was an 18-foot African rock python. Cuculino grabbed it behind the head and stuffed it into a foam box.

His wife, June, carried a red-eared slider turtle to safety, and firefighter Ed Kooker rescued four caimans and stuffed them into wire cages.

Then came the big alligators.

Kooker struggled out of the charred building with a five-footer as his fellow firefighters rushed in with duct tape to fasten the animal's snout shut. The only place to keep the four alligators was to leave them writhing in the back seat of June Cuculino's 1988 Mazda.

For now, the four are living in Cuculino's bathroom.

This morning, a 10-foot Burmese python turned up--coiled in a corner window of the aquarium gift shop, still alive. A four-foot anaconda found Cuculino, biting him on the thumb.