Firefighters investigate a blaze that killed a young child Wednesday in Montgomery Village. (Dan Morse/The Washington Post)

Fire erupting inside his kitchen, Samuel Quarshie ran from his second-floor apartment in Montgomery County. With him was Darlene, his 3-year-old daughter, and trailing right behind — or so he thought — was Lancelot, his 4-year-old son. Then Quarshie turned around.

The little boy wasn’t there. In the chaos, he might not have left directly behind his dad. Or maybe Lancelot did but decided to go back in.

Those were the possibilities advanced Thursday by county fire investigators and Quarshie’s family members. Lancelot perished in the Wednesday afternoon blaze, which sent residents of the Cider Mill Apartments in Montgomery Village scrambling out windows and, in one case, throwing two of their children to neighbors who came rushing to their aid.

“It’s a terrible nightmare for us right now,” said Francesca Jones, Lancelot’s aunt, who gathered with friends and family members to grieve and try to make sense of what happened.

Quarshie tried to save his son, making his way back into the apartment, fire officials said. But he was overcome by heat and smoke and had to back out.

Lancelot Quarshie died in a fire on Jan. 8, 2014. The fire at the Cider Mill Apartments in the 18200 block of Lost Knife Circle has been ruled accidental. (Family Photo)

“He wanted to save him so bad,” Jones said, adding that Quarshie keeps replaying what he could have done differently. “He thinks he could have done more.”

Lancelot’s little sister survived with few if any physical injuries. But she spent much of Thursday walking around looking for her older brother, whom she called by a nickname — walking from room to room. “Papa, papa,” she said.

Fire investigators were still piecing together what happened, but based on an initial probe, officials said that around 4 p.m., Quarshie was awakened by a smoke alarm in apartment 202 of his three-story building. An appliance may have malfunctioned in the kitchen, which is near the front door of the apartment. “More than likely, it was an electrical issue in the kitchen,” said Battalion Chief Kevin Frazier, commander of the fire and explosives investigations unit.

Neighbors interviewed Thursday described a chaotic scene. Residents of the third floor were at their windows and balconies. Children outside were screaming. Heat was so intense that it blew out the sliding door to the balcony. At the same time, other residents were shooting video from their cellphones.

“In just minutes, it was a burning hell,” said Manuel Lopez, a resident of Cider Mill, which is slightly north of Gaithersburg.

Maria Sanchez, one of the residents who called 911, said she was preparing to pick up her children at school when she saw smoke come out of the second-floor unit in the apartment complex across the street. “It was awful,” she said, having seen children playing in that second-floor balcony. A woman in the apartment, she said, would hang baby clothes over the balcony to dry.

In just minutes, Sanchez said, the smoke turned into flames and residents rushed out to help neighbors.

One floor above the burning apartment, residents thought they were trapped. One man, who moments earlier had been putting groceries in his refrigerator, got jackets on his two sons, ages 7 and 9, and tried to get out the front door. Too much smoke. He went back into his apartment, and opened up a side window, leaning out with his sons.

“I was so scared. I thought, ‘We’re all going to die,’ ” said the man, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Joel, to protect his privacy.

Below him was open space, all the way to the ground. But to his left was the roof of a laundry room — still at least a 10-foot drop. He thought about throwing his kids there, but the distance seemed too great. He saw another man outside. “Please help! Please help!” he yelled. The man tried to climb onto the roof of the laundry room but couldn’t make it. He got help. Eventually, there were at least two men on the roof, and Joel decided that he had no choice.

Joel spoke to his 9-year-old son, Mikhail.

“Don’t be scared. You’ll be fine,” Joel said, preparing for the drop.

“Don’t worry, Daddy,” Mikhail said. “I will make it. I will make it.”

Joel threw him, and the men caught him — as Joel did with his younger son.

But there was no rescue of Lancelot, whom family members remembered as a smiling kid who talked of wanting to be an astronaut and go to the moon. He just turned 4 and was to celebrate his birthday at a party Saturday.

“He was a very happy boy,” said Jones, his aunt.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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