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Adrian Walker

A grim reminder

I'll be honest: I have wondered from time to time whether we, as a culture, get a little carried away about the heroism of firefighters.

Like when I took a trip out to Long Island earlier this summer and passed a fire station. It was hard not to wonder how long it had been since the firefighters there last fought a major fire. We've all heard the stories about how unusual major fires have become.

Then a night such as Wednesday comes along and jolts people like me out of complacency. It was a night when firefighters take risks you and I would never take and pay with their lives.

Somber officials sought to explain the nearly inexplicable yesterday. The fire that took the lives of two Boston firefighters started above the ceiling, they said, and had been burning for some time before employees noticed it. When the first firefighters went in, the ceiling collapsed, trapping them in an inferno.

Paul J. Cahill and Warren J. Payne were the first Boston firefighters killed in a blaze since 1994, which is no consolation to anyone. Another 10 firefighters and one paramedic were injured. By yesterday, all but one had been released from local hospitals.

"They always put their needs before our own," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said at a press conference. "But it doesn't make it any easier to deal with the tragedy."

Menino later said he had been at home when the call came, a call any mayor dreads. There are some things that don't get any easier after 14 years as mayor.

He visited the scene, then headed to Brigham and Women's Hospital to be with family members who were beginning to assemble.

He freely admitted that words pretty much failed him.

"It's like looking at a brick wall," he said. "All I could say to them was I'm sorry."

Yesterday he was headed to Scituate to visit Cahill's family, while still working to set up a meeting with Payne's family.

In West Roxbury, the fire became an instant event. The firehouse is part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Its trucks are a common sight at the neighborhood's block parties.

Hundreds of residents took to the streets as word spread.

Councilor John Tobin was walking home from the fire around 2 in the morning, surprised how many people were out in the streets.

Like some others, he had initially heard that a small grease fire had broken out.

The next call said that two firefighters were dead.

"You don't know what to do, but I certainly wasn't going to sit around and watch TV," Tobin said.

"It's hard to believe that just a few hours before they were probably having dinner or watching the Sox game."

The investigation into the fire is far from complete, officials said yesterday. Among the unanswered questions is what role a 3-ton air conditioning unit may have played.

Also unknown is why the firefighters apparently attempted a rescue mission when the restaurant was empty. The staff and patrons had made it out before the firefighters arrived.

Owners of nearby businesses were looking for space yesterday, dealing with the scars of the fire. West Roxbury will feel the effects of Wednesday night for some time. The city has pledged to help them relocate, as well it should.

The questions of how the fire turned fatal may be answered in time, but not in time to ease the pain of the families involved or the shock of a neighborhood that watched an ordinary summer night explode in flames and tragedy. Cahill left three children; Payne, two.

Generally, fire isn't the public safety emergency it was a generation ago.

The complacency that fewer large fires have created may be understandable, but it can get turned inside out in a matter of minutes, the length of time it takes a seemingly routine fire to turn tragic.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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