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Station house 'family' shoulders loss together

Inside the red-brick firehouse yesterday morning, hours after trucks rumbled to a seemingly routine kitchen fire just up the road, firefighters from across the city gathered to remember the two men who did not return.

The firefighters brought flowers and food. They lingered in the parking lot and did what they could to comfort one another. Two were dead, veteran firefighters Paul Cahill and Warren Payne. Many who came to pay respects knew that they themselves could have died instead.

They spoke sparingly, uttering only the few words that seemed to make sense.

"You say you're sorry; that's all you can say," said Dennis Keeley, a district fire chief stationed at the department's downtown headquarters. "It's like a wake. You shake each other's hands. Maybe give each other a hug and say you're sorry."

For the men at the firehouse, the news was an especially bruising blow. Already in the last four months, they had lost two of their own: Phinazee "Buddy" Brown, an 18-year veteran who died of injuries suffered in a motorcycle crash in May, and Eugene O'Gara, who died of a heart attack in July after about 20 years on the job.

But the deaths of Cahill and Payne struck a different chord, shocking firefighters from Jamaica Plain to South Boston. These two died on the job, the first Boston firefighters killed in a blaze since 1994.

The deaths were a horrifying reminder of the hazards of their work, for the fire had appeared at first to be nothing more than a small kitchen blaze.

Boston Fire Chief Kevin MacCurtain said during a press conference yesterday that firefighters initially arrived at Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese restaurant "thinking to themselves, 'This one is going to be easy.' " But fire officials now believe that the fire had been smoldering above a false ceiling that concealed it for more than an hour while it created an explosive mix of gas and heat.

"This is devastating," said Captain Pat Nichols of Ladder 25 in West Roxbury. "This is a loss of a family member. . . . This hasn't been a good year."

The West Roxbury firehouse has suffered on-duty losses before. Edwin "Dicer" Foley died Dec. 30, 1970, when he fell off a truck while returning to the firehouse from a false alarm. And the fire station suffered another loss about three years later when Bernard Tully died. Tully was killed on Jan. 22, 1974, when a firetruck, responding to a car crash, hit a patch of ice and slammed into a dump truck.

Tully, according to news stories at the time, knew the risks of the job, and firefighters today clearly know them, as well.

"This could be you," said Captain Bob Dowling of Tower Ladder 10 in Jamaica Plain, reflecting on the deaths of Cahill and Payne. "You leave your wife and your kids behind. That's the real tragedy. Their kids and wives are now without husbands and fathers."

By midday yesterday, the visitors to the firehouse on Centre Street included not only firefighters entering through the back door, but firefighting families lingering at the front door in prayer and in tears.

The benches outside the station where firefighters often sit, chatting with pedestrians and offering local children a chance to sit in an idle firetruck, quickly became sacred ground. Mourners left flowers in bunches. Candles burned. Teddy bears piled up. One mourner left a toy firetruck. Another scrawled on a baseball, "Thank you." And still others just stood and wept.

"Just paying my respects to the firefighters," said Carla O'Sullivan, the wife of a retired Boston firefighter, who has worn a gold pendant shaped like a firefighter's helmet around her neck for more than 20 years. "I know what they're going through."

West Roxbury is a firefighting neighborhood, where as many as 100 active members of the department live; 30 or more are graduates of nearby Catholic Memorial High School, Keeley said. When school begins there next Wednesday, students will remember the fallen firefighters in a prayer service.

But yesterday, because they had to, because it is their job, Boston firefighters were already doing what they could to push on, knowing that a call like Wednesday's could come crackling across their radios again at any moment.

"It's like everything else," said Frederick Sullivan, the district fire chief for Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. "You get ready for the next one. Keep going forward."

David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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