Lawrence Joseph Virgilio was born to be a firefighter.

He was tough when he had to be, and tender when he needed to be. He grew up in Woodside, the kind of small, neighborly community Thornton Wilder portrayed in his play "Our Town." The difference was that Woodside is parted in the middle by the rumbling No. 7 elevated subway train.

Someone asked Virgilio's mother, Lucy, about his first name. "We named him Lawrence after the movie, 'Lawrence of Arabia,' which had just come out," she said.

Fire Capt. Dan Tracy, who worked with Virgilio, said the 38-year-old firefighter was "unwavering," and that he had a side job as a physical therapist.

"One of his patients was a famous wrestler - he was known as the Masked Marvel - who had cancer and was living in squalor on the Lower East Side," Tracy said. "Larry grew to like him and took care of him as he was dying, buying him things like a refrigerator and a couch."

Tracy - choked with emotion - told the story of the caring firefighter at his funeral yesterday. He got the packed house at St. Sebastian's Roman Catholic Church in Woodside laughing when he told of how nothing fazed Virgilio, who was trapped when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed last week.

"We were sitting in the kitchen in the firehouse," he said, "and I asked him to make some tea. He got the kettle, filled it with water, put it on the stove and lit it.

"The kettle went sky high because we had taped firecrackers to the bottom of it. Larry didn't say a word. He was unflappable."

Virgilio is one of more than 300 firefighters who are missing and presumed dead, a number so obscene that Tracy vowed "we will never talk about their deaths using numbers. Their names will always be told."

Virgilio was one of three firefighters from star-crossed Squad 18 who were buried yesterday. The others were firefighters Eric Allen and Manuel Mojica.

Squad 18 on West 10th Street in the West Village was famous - before Sept. 11 - for bearing the brunt of the biggest single loss of firefighters in the department's history in 1966. That year, five out of 12 men who died at the Wonder drugstore fire on East 23rd were from Squad 18.

But fire is unforgiving and has no memory and so it was left to the mourners, the priest, the bagpipers and Virgilio's family to conjure up his memory.

"He was a Woodside kid," Msgr. Joseph Finnerty said. "And he still lives here over on 59th Street."

Finnerty was standing in the vestibule of the church yesterday where the bells tolled, the subway rumbled and a church organ played a hymn. All of this under a steady drizzle.

"He was baptized here, he made his first Holy Communion here. And he was confirmed here," Finnerty said, herding a crew of five altar helpers, two of them girls, telling them, "when you hear the bagpipers, that means he's here."

They brought Virgilio up Roosevelt Avenue to 58th Street, the way they bring all firefighters to their church - on top of a fire engine from his own company and draped in purple.

It was unbearably sad and worse when the choir sang a song that is sung at almost all the firefighter funerals. It is called "Be Not Afraid" and it includes these lyrics:

If you walk amid the burning flame, you shall not be burned.

Virgilio did walk among the flames because, like his brothers, he was trained to go in when most people are going out. It's why firefighting isn't a job, it is a mission.

No one has suffered more than the firefighters and their families, who now must take them to their graves during the coming days and weeks, the way they took Virgilio to Calvary Cemetery a few blocks from his church yesterday.

Woodside has been shattered by what happened in downtown Manhattan, Finnerty said.

"A lot of people from the parish are missing. This place is dealing with unbearable sadness," he said.

At the end of Mass, as eight firefighters carried Virgilio out of the church, a policeman named Edward Harrigan played "Taps." It was the loneliest sound on a gray lonely day.

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