EVERETT - A loud bang startled Terrence Brown from his sleep and he knew something was terribly wrong when he felt the floor of his apartment shaking.
"I looked out the window, and all I could see was flames," he said.
Down Everett's Main Street toward Sweetser Circle, the 40-year-old father of two could see only bright orange flames surrounded by blackness. In the other direction, he saw screaming people running away as flames flowed down the street.
"My heart just went to pounding," he said.
One block to the south, 51-year-old Edward Baro was watching television in his first-floor apartment when he heard a crash. He knew right away it was a wreck at the traffic circle down the street. He opened the front door.
"I saw the truck on its side, but it was just a small ball of fire, so I went in the house to tell the family, but then I heard this huge explosion," said Baro, who lives with his wife and three sons in a three-level apartment building. "By the time I got back out the door, the fire was already coming down the street at our house."
Within moments, the front exit of his house was blocked by a wall of flames.
"I could see the truck tipped over, the wheels and everything were up, but I was never thinking the fuel would come down."
When the driver of a gasoline tanker lost control of his truck around 1:45 yesterday morning, slamming it onto its side at the Everett traffic circle, the resulting explosion and fire unleashed a raging tumult in this industrial city.
Residents along Main Street and the cross streets within blocks of Sweetser Circle recounted with disbelief yesterday cars exploding one by one and flames shooting out of manholes. In what residents, politicians, and emergency officials called a miracle, no one was killed or hurt.
Brown started knocking on doors and ringing doorbells in his six-family apartment building when he saw the scene outside. His family - his wife, 8-month-old son, 15-year-old son, and 7-year-old niece - all fled up Main Street.
"The safest way to go was back up the street," he said.
He roused as many residents as he could in his building and one next door.
"I didn't know whether it was going to hit the gas lines, or what," he said. "My thing was trying to wake everybody up and get them out of the house."
The street, he said, "was just blowing up. Boom, boom, boom. I didn't know what was going on."
Edward Baro's son, Christopher, and his son's girlfriend, Laura Houlihan, ran from the family's apartment at 78 Main St. when they heard the explosions.
Christopher Baro and Houlihan, both 23, ran outside and jumped into his 1997 Chevrolet Lumina. "We were trying to get away as fast as possible," Houlihan said. "And the car seemed the fastest way possible."
But they suddenly found the car surrounded by a wall of flames that Houlihan estimated was 8 feet high. Baro slammed the car into reverse, drove through the flames and crashed into a traffic island about 20 feet from the burning house.
"We got out because we couldn't go anywhere else. It was pretty scary for a little bit," said Baro. "If we stayed in the car maybe 10 seconds more, me and my girlfriend would be dead."
Christopher's brother Matthew, 16, fled out the front door of the family's apartment.
"I had to jump over the flames," he said. "I wasn't thinking. I just needed to get out of there. Then I went around the house, came back and started helping the elderly people."
There he met his parents, Edward and Debra Baro, who had fled out the back door.
The Baros helped several elderly residents of two adjacent apartment buildings onto the top of a truck and over a fence behind their homes.
"One woman could hardly walk. I had to throw her over the [fence]," Edward Baro said. "The cars were exploding all around us. The flames were coming out of the vents in the street."
The Baro family reunited across town at the Edward G. Connolly Center - formerly the Everett Armory - where American Red Cross and public officials met with evacuees. As many as 200 people accepted donations of food and clothing at the center yesterday, said Rick Milley, recreation director for the city.
While the two multifamily houses on either side of the Baros's were destroyed and had to be demolished last night, their home withstood the flames, though it sustained moderate smoke and fire damage, fire officials said.
A resident in one of the other buildings, Sandra Howley, said she had just gone to bed in her second-floor apartment when her sister started screaming. She ran to the window and saw the rotary in flames. "It just came so fast. I kept running even though I couldn't get my shoes on," she said. "It was just a big fireball."
She said she wasn't sure whether her cats survived. "Everything was just exploding," she said. "You only see that in the movies."
In the explosion's aftermath, the sharp stench of gasoline hung in the air as residents watched firefighters, tow truck operators, environmental specialists, and insurance agents arrive.
Michael Tuton, who lives nearby and was surveying the scene yesterday morning, said he had been awoken by the blasts.
"I heard the 'bang, bang, bang,' and I turned the scanner on," Tuton said. "The chief said, 'Main Street's on fire.' "
John R. Ellement, Megan Woolhouse, and Erin Ailworth of the Globe staff contributed to this report. John C. Drake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.