South Ozone Park, Queens, was a neighborhood of friends in the early 1980s, Mary Farino remembered last week.

It was a place where kids spent their free time at the local deli or ice cream shop on summer days. It was the place where Mary, of Bohemia, started dating Tom, the man who would become her husband. They were both 17.

Mrs. Farino said, "My parents liked him right away. He came from a family of well-adjusted boys. How could any parent not like that?" They married five years later.

The youngest of six brothers, Capt. Thomas Farino, 37, of Engine Co. 26 in midtown Manhattan, graduated from John Jay College with a degree in police sciences. He wanted to follow in the shoes of his father, Dominick, and brother Frank of Bohemia, who were both officers with the New York Police Department.

After two years with the NYPD, Farino left to pursue a career as a firefighter, his wife said.

"The fire department was a different kind of family for Tom," she said. "He loved the unity that he felt with the guys he worked with."

Battalion Chief Bob Maynes of Miller Place, who worked as a firefighter with Farino in Jamaica, described him as bright, calm and having a great sense of humor.

Farino was a "great, straight man," according to fellow firefighter Don Wunderlich of Ladder Co. 157 in Brooklyn. He would play practical jokes on his co-workers, acting nonchalant while those who bore the brunt of his pranks were howling mad, Wunderlich said.

He once rigged a sink in the firehouse to spray water, Wunderlich said. When the lieutenant on duty went to wash his hands, the water pressure wasn't what he expected. Drenched and fuming, the lieutenant accused a number of suspects. Farino was not one of them. He coolly sat at his desk reading the paper. After things calmed down a bit, he fessed up, Wunderlich said.

"He would have been successful in anything he did," Maynes said. "For a young guy, he was really ahead of his time."

Fighting fires is comparable to being in a war, Wunderlich said. Farino would be the first one to go into battle. He was a nozzleman before he was promoted to captain.

"The nozzleman is the first guy in," Maynes said. "He holds the end of the hose and waits until he can actually see flames before he turns it on. Tom never opened the nozzle prematurely. He never panicked."

Tom Farino's self-assured manner rubbed off on the men he worked with, his fellow firefighters said.

"He was always in control and had a lot of confidence," Wunderlich said. "His confidence was contagious. The guys he worked with knew they would be OK when Tom was around."

Farino was last heard from at 8:35 a.m. Sept. 11, when his wife spoke to him at the firehouse. She called back at 9:15 a.m., after she heard about the terrorist attacks, but received word that her husband had just left, and was heading for the World Trade Center.

Farino's wife said she and their children, Jane, 10, and Jimmy, 6, feel what the families of many of the fallen firefighters feel: anger, grief, loss and futility.

"They ask me if they can go look for their dad," Mary Farino said. "My son still sleeps with his dad's captain's hat."