A little after midnight Monday, Mike Hassan and Tad Steadman were working on Hassan's car in the parking lot of his Summerville apartment building.
Steadman, who is a Marine stationed out of Beaufort, was helping Steadman, formerly in the Army.
The pair noticed a small fire on the second floor of a nearby building of the Westbury Mews Apartments on Trolley Road.
"My first thought process was getting everyone out," Steadman said.
Hassan, 25, called 911, and he and Steadman, 20, ran over to the building, banging their fists on every door they could.
"Military mode kicked in," Hassan said. "We were yelling 'fire, fire, fire' and 'get out.'"
By the time Hassan reached the third floor, the smoke had filled the hallway.
"I remember looking up. I was bent down trying to stay under the smoke. It was so black I thought I was looking at the sky. Smoke was billowing out," he said. "Once the vinyl roofing started falling all around me I knew it was time to go."
Afterward, neighbors told the pair they thought they were young kids just making loud noise until they heard them scream the word "fire."
The blaze destroyed 12 apartments, and about two dozen people were displaced. The American Red Cross was assisting 11 adults and five children.