OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Ellen Schlehuber stood shivering in her pajamas, watching as a firefighter tried to coax one of her neighbors out of a third-floor window and onto a narrow ladder in the middle of the night.

The woman, a resident of the School Street apartment building Centennial Place, had refused to leave her cats behind and now was trapped by smoke from a fire that had started in a first-floor apartment.

“She was screaming ‘Help me, help me,’ ” Schlehuber said.

The blaze at 1 a.m. Thursday – blamed on a cooking accident – forced more than two dozen mostly elderly and disabled residents to flee the three-story, 30-unit subsidized apartment building.

The woman in the third-floor window finally overcame her fear of the 20-foot drop and climbed onto the arms of the female firefighter, who was clutching both sides of the ladder. With the woman’s back against the rungs and her legs dangling on either side, the firefighter then slid down the ladder.

“She kept crying out that it hurt,” Schlehuber said of the woman.

Another woman, who lived near the burning apartment, was forced to leap from a second-floor window into a snowbank.

“She didn’t want to do it, but the firefighters told her she had to,” said Jason Rees, who fled his apartment through a back fire escape.

Several of the residents of 4 School St. were rescued from second- and third-floor windows, said Fire Capt. Norman Gendron.

“They were coming down ladders. I was inside, but they said a lot of people were sitting on the windowsills trying to get out,” Gendron said.

One person was taken to a hospital for an ankle injury and another for smoke inhalation, he said. Later, a third person who complained of pain was taken to a hospital.

It could have been worse.

“It was a disaster averted. It had the potential to be real bad,” Gendron said.

FIRE PROBABLY STARTED NEAR A STOVE

Andy Greeley, in whose apartment the fire started, said Thursday afternoon that he hadn’t been cooking and didn’t know how the fire started. He said he had put something in the refrigerator and returned to the living room. When he turned around, he saw flames in his kitchen.

As Greeley fled the apartment, flames singed his hair and burned the back of his hand.

“I couldn’t get anything. I couldn’t save my wallet,” said Greeley, who has lived there for nine years. “I got nothing but a pair of red long johns,” which he was wearing when he fled.

Sgt. Tim York, an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, determined that the fire started at the stove and then spread to the area near the sink as though someone had tried to move something that was burning toward the water.

Fire officials said Greeley had been drinking and at first denied that the fire started in his apartment. A spokesman for the Fire Marshal’s Office said alcohol consumption was a contributing factor in the fire.

FIRE SPREAD QUICKLY, PUT OUT QUICKLY

Gendron, the fire captain, said the fire destroyed the first-floor apartment where it started and badly damaged the hallway. The fire spread quickly, he said, because the apartment door had been left open. The second and third floors received smoke damage. The fire did relatively little damage to the exterior of the building but affected more than half the structure.

It took firefighters just over half an hour to extinguish the fire. The building’s parking lot was poorly plowed and firefighters had to drag their hoses over snowbanks, although the piles did provide a soft landing for the resident who had to jump, Gendron said.

Maureen O’Connor had been asleep for about 20 minutes when she was roused by the building’s fire alarm. She poked her head out the door in time to see Greeley open his door and flames shoot out over his head. The hallway started to fill with smoke.

“I thought I was going to burn to death,” she said. O’Connor, 67, who usually relies on a powered wheelchair, charged up the steps to the fire exit at the rear of the building and into thigh-high snow left over from Tuesday’s blizzard. She was barefoot and wearing a nightgown.

Wrapped in a New York Yankees blanket against the cold Thursday afternoon, O’Connor described how she felt lucky to be alive but also jinxed. She had come to Maine to live near her sister after she was displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

‘CAME OUT … COUGHING AND GAGGING’

Rachael Dean has lived in a second-floor apartment since April.

“The alarms went off and people were banging on my door saying, ‘Fire! Fire!’ ” she said. Dean, who was wearing the slippers she escaped in, and a neighbor were forced to leave their cats behind and escaped through thick smoke.

“We were hanging onto each other. We were freaking out,” she said. As she passed Greeley’s apartment, where the fire started, she said the doorway was glowing. “We came out the door coughing and gagging,” she said

Charlene Kerr, a second-floor resident, thought it was a false alarm until she smelled smoke and called the fire department.

“I got changed and grabbed my dog,” she said of her cocker spaniel, Max. She tried to go down the main stairway, but it was too smoky so she used the fire escape.

As firefighters battled the fire, the residents were ferried to the police station. The American Red Cross evaluated their needs, provided emotional support and a health assessment, and placed many of them in a nearby hotel.

RESIDENTS ALLOWED BRIEF RE-ENTRY

Kevin Gerrish, property manager for Alpha Management, the building’s owner, was overseeing a large crew of workers Thursday. The first-floor apartment was destroyed but the others can be cleaned, and he hoped residents could return in a couple of days.

While crews worked inside, a front-end loader removed several truckloads of snow from the parking lot.

The Old Orchard Beach code enforcement officer was not available Thursday and it was unclear whether there had been any code violations at the building, a former high school that had been renovated and enlarged.

By midmorning Thursday, more than a dozen residents were brought back to the building in an Old Orchard Beach Recreation Department bus, most still wearing pajamas and bathrobes. They were escorted inside, one by one, to retrieve medications and other essentials. Some emerged smiling but with soot on their faces. Many of the residents had pets and it appeared they all survived.

Carol Horn said a police officer had rescued her four cherished pet frogs, including a large one that she cuddles like kitten.

“He was so scared,” she said.