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Warren J. Payne

When he responded to medical calls, Warren J. Payne would often drop to one knee and hold victims' hands while he looked deeply into their eyes.

"You're going to be OK," he would tell them. "I'm here with you."

Back at the station, talking and joking with fellow firefighters, he would sometimes turn serious, hug them, and say: "I love you. Warren loves you."

"He was very comforting, exactly the kind of guy you would want to have next to you if you needed medical help," said Mark Selden, a firefighter who worked beside Payne at their West Roxbury station over the past 11 years. "He would get his nose close to your nose, look intensely in your eyes, which meant he understand what you were saying."

On Wednesday night, Payne, 53, a Newton resident and father of two teenage boys, was one of two firefighters who died when a roof collapsed during a restaurant fire in West Roxbury. Both served in the firehouse on Centre Street, headquarters of Engine 30 and Ladder 25.

Born in 1954 in Boston, Payne grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester and later spent about a year and a half studying liberal arts at Bunker Hill Community College. He went on to work odd jobs in landscaping and security before becoming a certified emergency medical technician. He became a firefighter in 1988 and was assigned to Ladder 25, where he spent 19 years helping douse fires and rescue trapped and injured people.

Payne was skilled at providing medical help, teaching others how to perform blood pressure readings and CPR.

"I was amazed with his knowledge of the EMS [emergency medical service] side of the fire service," said Ralph Dowling, secretary of Boston Firefighters Local 718, adding Payne often attended funerals for firefighters. "He was just a down-to-earth, nice, friendly firefighter who loved his job."

More than anything, he was known for his courage and keen observations.

He would often walk into buildings and memorize their layouts, later using that mental map to warn others about potential obstructions that might block an exit.

"He would take it all in and notice the small stuff, which is what made him a good firefighter," said Captain Pat Nichols, who worked with Payne for the past 11 months on Ladder 25. "He would always say, 'Captain, check this out; did you see that?' He was always observing things."

It was such skills that leads Nichols to believe that Payne never had a chance in the blaze Wednesday night, when he was working an overtime shift.

"The conditions in this fire must have changed dramatically, quickly," Nichols said. "He was heading out, but it happened so fast he couldn't get out. . . . It became fully involved almost instantaneously."

Payne, who was divorced and had previously lived in Canton, leaves his sons, Johnathan, 16, and Jeremy, 14, who live in Newton with their mother, Cheryl Payne, said Tim Birmingham, a Cambridge lawyer who represented Payne. He also leaves his mother, Florence Payne, who lives in Dorchester.

"What stands out the most is his love for his sons," Selden said. "He always talked about them."

His family included his fellow firefighters, for whom he bought lunch, cooked meals, and shared advice.

"When I needed him, he was always there for me, always keeping me smiling," Selden said. "This is hard, this is really hard."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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