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Boston mourns fallen firefighter

William Earl Moragne (left), the youngest brother of firefighter David A. Middleton, was offered comfort yesterday by Lieutenant Dwaine Daye at Engine 51 in Brighton. (EVAN RICHMAN/GLOBE STAFF)

When it was David A. Middleton's turn to run the kitchen in the Oak Square firehouse in Brighton, fellow firefighters knew what was coming, and they weren't excited. With his six-pack abdomen and devotion to healthy eating, they knew that Middleton was going to serve up chicken -- stir fried, dry, and edible only when coated with large amounts of salad dressing.

Yesterday, his colleagues were struggling to understand how on Tuesday the muscular 39-year-old fireman with a strong work ethic, a shiny bald head, and a quick smile had become the 172d Boston firefighter to die in the line of duty.

"He was in excellent shape -- or so it seemed," said Captain Eric C. Watson, Middleton's supervisor at Engine 51. "That's why it's real surprising. It's still kind of difficult to take, his death. It's very hard."

Middleton, the father of two boys, worked his regular shift on Sunday. The engine company he has served on since joining the department in 1997 handled two fires during his shift, officials said. In what firefighters said was a rarity for him, Middleton complained that he wasn't feeling well, but still finished his shift at 8 a.m. Monday.

"He told me he wasn't feeling himself," said Lieutenant Dwaine Daye, who knew Middleton when both were elementary students attending Melrose schools through METCO. "He wasn't the type of person to complain."

Middleton, according to fire officials, went to his Dorchester home, where his frantic fiancée called for help.

Firefighters from Ladder 23 and paramedics struggled to keep him alive, and Middleton was rushed to Boston Medical Center, where he passed away on Tuesday.

He was the first Boston firefighter to die in the line of duty since 1999, when Firefighter David L. Packard, who was 56 years old, died of a heart attack. That same year, 64-year-old firefighter Joseph R. Murphy also died of a heart attack on the job.

Officials said they consider Middleton to have died in the line of duty because he worked two fires and reported he was unwell during his shift, officials said.

An autopsy will be performed by the state medical examiner's office, and a spokesman said yesterday that Middleton's family will be briefed before any medical conclusions are made public.

Ed Kelly, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, graduated with Middleton from the department's Fire Academy in 1997.

He said firefighters deal with the "strange stress" of wearing 80 pounds of gear while rushing to burning buildings, car crashes, hazardous material situations, and people in need of medical help.

"You wouldn't expect it in this kid; he was so attentive to his health," Kelly said. But the job "puts a stress on you that is almost unmatched," he added.

According to Boston firefighter Roosevelt Robinson, Middleton had served in the Army Reserve in the 1990s, but had never been activated.

Robinson said Middleton had a 15-year-old son from his first marriage and had a 3-year-old son with his fiancée. Middleton also had a large extended family, which was struggling yesterday to deal with his death while also making funeral arrangements.

Middleton is tentatively scheduled to be buried Monday with full department honors.

In a statement, Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser Jr. mourned Middleton's passing, the first firefighter to die in the line of duty since he took over last year.

"In the past eight months, I've gotten to see firsthand the challenges [firefighters] face and the untenable environment firefighters are forced to work in," he said. "When others are running out, Boston firefighters are running in. That's why I am committed to supplying them with the best equipment and the best training possible."

Colleagues said yesterday that Middleton had extraordinary strength and was frequently the firefighter who handled the most physically demanding tasks on the engine truck at fire scenes. He was one of the few firefighters strong enough to handle a live 2 1/2-inch-thick fire hose by himself, colleagues said.

"He did his job with pride and dignity," Watson said.