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February 26, 2005|BY PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN

Smoke billowing from the rooftops of a downtown Hagerstown apartment building Friday afternoon caused a Washington County Sheriff's Department deputy and two passers-by to stop and evacuate six children from the smoke-filled structure.

Before firefighters arrived at 125 E. Washington St. for the fire, Deputy 1st Class Dave Norford went into an apartment at 127 E. Washington St. and got three children out.

Debbie Hill, 43, and her son, Travis Stevens, 18, were headed to McDonald's when they saw smoke coming from the building and summoned three children from 125 E. Washington St. to come outside.

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Norford was coming down East Washington Street in a police cruiser about 1:15 p.m. when he noticed smoke blowing over the building.

Knowing that the smoke was too heavy to have come from burning trash, Norford - who was headed to serve a criminal summons south of town - said he pulled into a parking lot beside the building, called for help, "jumped the fence and went up the steps."

Once the door to the apartment from the back steps was broken in, Norford went inside the smoke-filled apartment.

"I started tunneling 'cause I thought, 'I know there are people in there,'" he said.

"I kept hollering and hollering," he said, adding that the smoke was heavy and the apartment warm. He found three children, ages 15, 9 and 6, sleeping in one of the bedrooms. Norford ushered them out. He said that as he headed back to the structure, fire crews arrived.

The children, one of whom was wearing only an oversized T-shirt, sat in the back of Norford's cruiser as he talked.

Tabatha Garner, 38, the children's mother, said she was at work in Frederick, Md., when the fire broke out.

"I'm glad (Norford) did what he did. I'm glad they're safe," she said as she eyed the activity surrounding the smoky structure.

Two of the boys Hill and her son got out of the building were sitting in the back of her Ford Contour as firefighters rushed past the car's window. The boys, ages 4 and 8, smiled and touched the glass.

When the Hagerstown Fire Department responded, the fire was spreading from 125-127 E. Washington St. to 123 E. Washington St., Battalion Chief Kyd Dieterich said.

Also, 121 E. Washington St. was at risk, he said.

Dieterich said the fire was in attic space at 125-127 E. Washington St. - above the apartment ceiling, but below the roof. He didn't know what caused it. A fire marshal was investigating.

Dieterich said it took firefighters about 30 minutes to control the fire.

Hill said she arrived before firefighters, too.

"We were driving down the road and my son said, 'Mom, a house must be on fire,'" she said.

Hill said she pulled into the same side parking lot as Norford, but ran around to the front of the house. The two young boys and a 16-year-old girl were inside the doorway and came outside.

Stevens went to Sheetz to get soda for the boys while they waited.

Kelley Lindsay, 35, said she was at work when her 16-year-old daughter, who was in the bottom floor of the two-story apartment at 125 E. Washington St., saw smoke.

"She went to get the fire extinguisher and when she went back up the steps, it was all in flames," she said. "She called me hysterically and said it's on fire."

Lindsay pointed to Hill and her son as those who helped get the children to safety.

Staff writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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