VANCOUVER – Firefighters rescued seven people from a burning, smoke-filled apartment building in a pre-dawn fire that burned so fast, some residents wondered if they'd make it out alive.

Crews were called to the three-storey building near Heather Street and Southwest Marine Drive in Vancouver at about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday.

"I was crying," Farhana Jesmin told CTV News from the safety of the sidewalk across Marine Drive. "Maybe everybody is going to die here."

Stalin Selbam and Lavanya Ram, who heard the fire alarm and ran outside with nothing except their phones, said they watched as several residents who weren't able to escape screamed for help from their balconies.

"It was really, really bad," Ram said. "It was burning like crazy."

Some 40 firefighters responded to the building, and while some crews battled the flames and smoke venting from the wood-frame roof, others quickly used ladders to rescue five people from their balconies.

"The two girls, they were brought down a ladder," said resident Mike Wakeman, who watched one of the rescues. "We're just kind of in shock right now."

Assistant Chief Dave Boone with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services said another team went into the building and found two people in a hallway, one unconscious, suffering from smoke inhalation.

"Crews had quite a handful in both attacking the fire and … performing those rescues," Boone said.

Both residents were transported to hospital and Boone said both were conscious and in stable condition.

As the sun rose and firefighters worked to extinguish hot spots, investigators began probing the cause, including a tip from a next-door neighbour who told CTV News he woke up to a loud group of people and the sound of fireworks.

"It looks like the trees were on fire before the building was," said the neighbour, who declined to give his name. "The young lady screamed out 'Fire!' They looked at it for about 20 seconds and they took off quickly down Marine."

Firefighters say the cause of the blaze remains "undermined."

They added the building sustained "severe" damage, with at least one upper corner suite completely destroyed and several others sustaining smoke and water damage.

Boone said all residents, who were housed in a transit bus for a few hours until temporary accommodations could be found, will be out of their homes for the "foreseeable future."

"We don't have insurance," Selbam said. "We don't know what to do."

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Sheila Scott