Thousands of people gathered along the streets of Washington yesterday to watch the lengthy funeral procession of John T. Williams, paying homage to the first District firefighter since 1971 to die while fighting a blaze.

Store owners, tourists, motorists and holiday shoppers watched silently as the procession, led by a fire truck carrying Williams' flag-draped coffin, wound its way down city streets from the funeral at New Bethel Baptist Church in Northwest to the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery just over the Prince George's County line.

Hundreds of cars and fire trucks, representing virtually every local fire department, stretched for miles along the route as cross streets were closed and traffic in some areas of the city came to a standstill.

D.C. Fire Department rescue squads and engine, truck and ladder companies -- their bells ringing -- were spaced intermittently along Florida, Independence and Pennsylvania avenues, and firefighters snapped to attention as the procession passed. The route took Williams' coffin past four District firehouses, including Engine Company No. 6 on New Jersey Avenue NW, where he was stationed for two years with Rescue Squad No. 1 and where the flag flew at half staff.

Williams, 36, a 10-year-veteran of the department known affectionately as "Big John," died early Wednesday morning in a two-alarm fire in the 800 block of 14th Street NW.

Williams was on the marquee of the Capitol Book Store, attempting to break into the second floor to search for people believed trapped inside, when he stepped onto an old air duct that was covered by a piece of tin and fell through to the basement. He died of a broken neck.

He was the second firefighter to die in the line of duty in 13 months. Calvin Steve of Engine Company No. 12 died in November 1983 of injuries he suffered when he fell off a truck on the way to a fire.

Previously, the last D.C. firefighter to die during a blaze was Maurice Thomas Turner Jr., who was killed in July 1971 when the wall of a six-story building on L Street NW toppled on him during a four-alarm fire.

Yesterday, members of Williams' family filed solemnly into the New Bethel Baptist Church, 1739 Ninth St. NW, for a two-hour service in which Williams was hailed as a dedicated firefighter and devoted father.

Members of Williams' firehouse filled the front pews and watched as close to 1,000 firefighters in double file, some from as far away as Canada, walked past Williams' open coffin at the front of the church, strips of black tape over their badges and hats held over their hearts.

During the service Frank Grinage, Williams' nephew, walked to the front of the congregation and sang a solo rendition of "Amazing Grace."

"I want to dedicate this song to one of the world's greatest firefighters, my uncle, Firefighter Big John," he said before the song.

City Administrator Thomas M. Downs, standing in for Mayor Marion Barry, who is in Africa, said, "We all owe [Williams] our everlasting thanks" for his service to the city.

D.C. City Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) said, "The sacrifice he has made is a reminder of the kind of sacrifice we call on other firefighters to make every day."

And Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman, who knew Williams when he was in high school and encouraged him to join the department, said Williams had fulfilled his dream to be a firefighter and "will rest peacefully.