They crawled into the burning rowhouse on their hands and knees, advancing beneath fire and smoke, moving straight into an overwhelming heat that pressed in from all sides.
They swept into darkness, each sealed head-to-toe in nearly 70 pounds of protective gear, breathing compressed air delivered from the tanks on their backs to the masks on their faces.
The Baltimore firefighters who charged through the front door of a blazing Cecil Avenue rowhouse yesterday entered with a fire hose hurling about 100 gallons of water per minute. The rescuers racing through a second-floor, rear-balcony door entered only with a hope of finding the children who were reportedly trapped inside.
Within minutes of arriving, both sets of firefighters pushed as far as they could into one of the city's worst fires in years. Yet minutes later, the intense blaze pushed back, forcing their nearly immediate evacuation.
"You never want to leave a fire under those conditions - knowing there are people inside," said Lt. John Neuberger, 41, a 16-year veteran with Truck 5.
But together, the firefighters in their initial attack on the fire doused the first-floor flames, located a victim and removed two residents. In the end, however, six people - including three children - died, five of whom were found charred beyond recognition inside.
"The scene inside that house was something no one should have to see," Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said. "And no one should have to die that way."
From the start of the fast-moving blaze, the firefighters had little chance of mounting a major rescue effort.
Only a half-mile separates Truck 5's firehouse on East 25th Street and the burning rowhouse at 1903 Cecil Ave. But upon the firefighters' arrival, approximately three minutes after the 7:21 a.m. 911 calls, the flames had already blasted through the two first-floor windows, and heavy smoke was pouring from the three shattered windows on the second floor.
"Being only five blocks away, it seemed like a lot of fire by the time we got there," said Neuberger, a married father of two from Bel Air.
Truck 5 firefighters are responsible for shattering glass to ventilate burning buildings and for search-and-rescue duties.
So, as Neuberger prepared to enter the front door with a hose team from Engine 33 (based at the same 25th Street firehouse), another Truck 5 member, Chris Coker, headed for the rear. Neighbors were screaming that two children were trapped in the second floor's back room, he said. Coker, a 29-year-old married father of three, hefted a 24-foot ladder and darted around back. He leaned it against the second-floor balcony, climbed up and shattered the glass window with a ceiling hook. He affixed his mask, dropped to his knees and crawled in - alone.
Coker said the back room was badly cluttered: a dresser, a bike, a bed. But on the floor, by the door, his gloved hands rubbed up against a body.
"I felt him before I saw him," said Coker, a firefighter for eight years. "I dragged him to the opening of the door and yelled down to the chief."
By then, 42-year-old Capt. John Gereny - of Truck 15, based at another East Baltimore firehouse - had climbed to the balcony. As Coker handed the survivor off, he told Gereny more might be inside.
Gereny began to crawl into the building, staying low, away from the heat. But just as he started his advance, the horns from all the trucks blared out: Evacuate, fire out of control.
"Luckily, at the last minute, I was able to get a young child out," said Gereny, a 20-year veteran. "He looked like he was about 7 or 8 years old."
The boy was lying by the bed nearly 7 feet inside the room, he said.
"In the rear we were lucky to make some rescues," Gereny said. "The conditions were more intense in the front of the building."
A chugging locomotive is how one firefighter described the sound of the burning house.
A three-person hose team from Engine 33, with Neuberger following, headed straight into the crackling, rumbling inferno. Firefighter Gus Siegel took the front spot on the nozzle. Firefighter and senior officer Gary Toskes came next. Recruit Amanda Stevenson came third.
Toskes, 47, is a 22-year veteran of the Fire Department. With debris falling from the ceiling, the four firefighters advanced on their knees, using the water to douse the flames on the first floor, the origin of the blaze.
"The flames were directly in front of us, there was nowhere to go to get away from them," Toskes said.
The team moved to the staircase where Siegel came upon a dead body. At about the same time, debris struck Siegel, dislocating his shoulder and forcing him to retreat.
Toskes took the nozzle, and Neuberger - sending the recruit to follow Siegel - took the second position. The fire was pushing down hard on them from the second floor.
"All the burning is on the floor, too. You have all that burning underneath you, all around you and over top you," Neuberger said.
But he and Toskes were confident they could extinguish it.