A fire ripped through a Rohnert Park apartment complex early Monday, forcing terrified residents to leap from their windows to escape the smoke and flames.

A neighbor was credited by Rohnert Park fire officials and residents with saving the lives of at least five people at the two-story Beverly Apartments complex off East Cotati Avenue.

Trevor Kasimoff, 23, caught two children who were held out the second-story window by their mother and helped catch the mother after she jumped from the same window. He later brought a ladder to the windows of neighboring apartments so those residents could climb out of their windows.

"He's my hero," said resident Jenny Haydon. "He saved me."

One woman reportedly suffered a broken ankle in the fall and one child was taken to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.

"We are absolutely convinced that had he (Kasimoff) not been there, it would have been very different," said Lt. John Marty, supervisor of Rohnert Park's public safety fire division. "Their path of egress was pretty much cut off."

About 15 people were displaced from their apartments by the blaze, which caused $1 million in damage and destroyed seven cars.

The fire's cause remains under investigation but it appears to have started in a carport, Marty said. Fire investigators Monday began the intricate process of combing through the wreckage with small shovels to start piecing together how the fire started.

Fire alarms sounded at 1:43 a.m. at the 38-unit Beverly Apartments. Fire crews arrived four minutes later, according to records, to find a six-unit portion of the complex ablaze, as well as multiple cars parked in the carport below.

"It had spread all through the carport and was threatening another complex next to it," Marty said. "It was building enough heat that the other half of the apartment complex was starting to catch. They were worried about the houses behind."

Kasimoff, who lives in a house on Santa Barbara Drive behind the Beverly Apartments, had been watching TV when he looked out the back window and saw flames climbing up the side of the neighboring apartment complex.

"It was chaotic. That minute seemed like 10 minutes," he said. "I was the only person there at that point. There were people in the windows. I said, 'Go downstairs, go downstairs.' They said, 'I can't,' so I did the next best thing."

Kasimoff caught the two children and their mother from one apartment before he was alerted by people in the windows to a ladder lying at the base of the building. He put the ladder to the windows and residents starting climbing down.

"When I got the ladder, the fire department had this fence kicked in," he said. "They were here so quickly, too."

Eight neighboring fire agencies responded to the blaze, filling Beverly Drive from East Cotati Avenue to Santa Barbara Drive with fire engines and other equipment.

A firefighter required stitches in his hand after he broke a window trying to gain access to the burning building.

Haydon said she was asleep on her couch when she awoke to the sounds of popping and cracking and saw flames out her front window. A towel lodged under the front door to stop a cold draft initially prevented smoke from coming into the apartment, she said.

"You are used to going out the front door. There is no back way," she said.

Haydon then went to her back window where she spotted Kasimoff on the ground, trying to help.

"He was standing there with a ladder and I said, 'Oh my god, thank you so much,'" she recalled.

Haydon left her apartment without her purse and had no shoes on.

The fire burned the units down to their shells, exposing the interiors to the open air. The intense heat melted the brake lights and bumpers from two cars parked across the driveway from the apartments and torched the shingle siding of the neighboring building.

The blaze destroyed four units and damaged three others, according to fire officials.

The local American Red Cross is assisting residents with temporary housing and other needs, according to Red Cross spokeswoman Ellen Maremont Silver.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.