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Amid the embers, a neighborhood mourns

As the fire engines rushed to the scene last night, the West Roxbury neighborhood began to gather, to stand vigil in the blinking lights as a tragedy unfolded.

"It's a fire-police neighborhood," said Jim Bichekas, 55, a West Roxbury resident, sitting on a wall at the White Hen Pantry, watching the fire that officials say killed two firefighters. "It's a sad day; people are going to take it hard."

Robert McDonald, 52, said his wife had just yesterday seen some of the local firefighters collecting money in a boot for muscular dystrophy.

"You've got to think of their families," said McDonald, a West Roxbury resident and a 20-year veteran of the fire department, who's stationed in Roxbury and was off-duty last night. "It's . . . sad to see your father go or your husband go to work at night and that's the last you see of them."

As news of the deaths began to filter out, residents of the close-knit neighborhood around Centre Street -- where nearly everyone knows a firefighter as a neighbor or friend -- gathered around the yellow police tape, all facing the shell of the Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese restaurant.

Juanita Selden leaned across the tape to hug her son, Mark, a firefighter from West Roxbury who was off duty last night but came to the scene.

"It gives you a feeling in the pit of your stomach," Juanita Selden said. "It's indescribable. As a mother, I feel for all of them."

Other firefighters and their families rushed to the scene from other parts of the city.

"We were at a softball game in Dorchester when we heard, so we flew over," said Amy Mullane, of Dorchester, who married fire Captain Neal Mullane Jr. one month ago. "My stomach just ached the whole ride over. It's honorable and brave what they do, but you can't help but worry."

The large neighborhood is home to many city workers, including firefighters, police officers, judges and lawyers.

"You can see everybody that's concerned coming out from the neighborhood," said Lisa Ochs, 43, a West Roxbury resident who works for the City Retirement Board. "Whether they know firefighters or not, it's just so painful."

Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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