They draped black and purple mourning bunting outside two firehouses Monday while veteran firefighters cried for three colleagues killed in a Father's Day explosion.
The dead firemen left eight children, prompting Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to label the five-alarm fire and blast "the worst Father's Day tragedy in the city's history."
Rescue Co. 4 in Queens lost Brian Fahey, 46, a fireman for 14 years, and Harry Ford, 50, who joined the department 27 years ago. Also killed was 11-year veteran John J. Downing of Ladder Company 163, also in Queens.
"We all know this can happen, we live with this and we go to funerals," Lt. Robert Cadieux said. "But this is the epicenter of the earthquake."
Adding to the grief was Fahey's last desperate message for help: "I'm trapped in the basement by the stairs," he said twice into his walkie-talkie before the radio went dead.
"There was contact and then the contact ended," said Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. "Everybody was moving bricks. We knew they were under there. Everyone was moving every brick as fast as they could to get them out."
The tragedy started as a routine run Sunday afternoon to a blaze at the Long Island General Supply Co. in the Astoria section of Queens, a hardware store that was founded in 1928 and was well known in the neighborhood.
The store was closed at the time, but numerous families occupied apartments above. While firefighters rescued the families, Ford and Downing worked outside, breaking windows for ventilation. Fahey was inside the building.
There was a small pop and then a tremendous explosion, burying Ford and Downing under a wall of rubble. The blast injured about 50 rescue workers, including more than a dozen firemen. One of the firefighters, Joseph Vosilla, 41, remained in extremely critical condition.
"There was no visible sign of changing conditions. . . . The building just exploded on us," said Capt. Brian Hickey of Rescue Co. 4.
On Monday, firefighters were still spraying water on the smoking ruins. Teams of investigators, fearing a further collapse, had to retreat from the structure. A crane was brought in to remove heavy beams threatening to crush the fire marshals.
The commissioner said it appeared that propane, paint thinners, lacquers and paints of all kinds probably exploded in the heat of the fire. He said the store had permits to keep the materials. Because of the age of the building, it was exempt from city regulations requiring sprinkler systems.
"Had the hardware store been built today, they would have had a sprinkler system," Von Essen said at a City Hall news conference with Giuliani. "Had there been a sprinkler system in the basement, the three firefighters would have been alive."
Von Essen said the building passed an inspection in November.
More than 24 hours after the blaze, the smell of burned chemicals permeated the neighborhood. Teachers rerouted children out the back door of a nearby public school so they would be less likely to view the devastation.
Some longtime neighborhood residents looked at the charred remnants of the store with disbelief.
"I come here to shop more than Home Depot all the time," said a man who identified himself only as Sam. "It was here for a long time. It was like a neighborhood icon."
Ximena Rua-Merkin, director of the Queens chapter of the Red Cross, said 43 adults and 27 children who lived in the apartments above the store or in adjacent buildings had to be relocated.
"We know that probably six families are not going to be able to return to their apartments," she said.
In front of Rescue 4, firemen set up a floral tribute. Other flowers and candles rested on a nearby table. Throughout the day, people who lived in the neighborhood came by to offer condolences.
"My heart goes out to them," said Warren Wullen, who arrived with his friend Mary Brown. Both live at a home for seniors around the corner from the firehouse.
They placed flowers on the table. Brown then said a short prayer as the firemen looked on grimly.
Researcher Lynette Ferdinand contributed to this story.