Born: Dec. 3, 1974. Resident of Woodbridge. Died: Jan. 12, 1999.

The knock on her door came late on a cold January night, as Marie Subacz was settling down to bed in her Woodbridge home. Her husband, Harry, a D.C. firefighter, was at work, as was their son Alex, who was trying to get his small computer company off the ground. The two younger children were asleep.

At the front door stood Alex's best friend, Vince Mustachio, with a Prince William police officer. Marie was confused. Was it Harry? If so, why was Alex's friend Vince on her porch?

Gently, the two broke the news to Marie that Alex, her firstborn, her easygoing son with the mischievous eyes and love of scuba diving, was dead. He had choked to death while eating alone in the tiny, unheated office in Chantilly where he had been virtually living as he nursed his Internet company, Minerva Network Systems Inc., to life.

For his family, the shock of Alex's death at age 24 was unfathomable. He had seemed so alive in recent months as he worked feverishly to get the company he'd started as a student at Virginia Tech up and running.

The story might have ended there. With Alex gone, Minerva Network Systems could easily have disappeared. But it didn't and, as a result, neither did Alex in a way.

In the months following his death, friends and family banded together to save his company. They pumped money, time and energy into the firm, which now has a new owner, a bigger staff and new offices.

Alex, say those who loved him, inspired that kind of loyalty and dedication.

Smart, athletic and blessed with a quick wit and wide smile, Alex Subacz always seemed to be having a good time. He graduated in 1992 from Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where he had expended little effort, his parents recall, but still excelled both as a student (National Merit semifinalist) and athlete (varsity football, two years).

He didn't take the world too seriously. In his application to college, he challenged Virginia Tech to take him: After all, he wrote, "How many football-playing, music-loving, artistically skilled and all-round good students could there be in the world?"

He loved writing teasing notes to his mother. "Love, your bestest little big baby boy," he signed a plea for money while a freshman at Tech.

He majored in computer engineering and grew fascinated with the Internet, launching a service while at Tech in which he tended companies' Web sites and fixed technical glitches. After college, he took a job with Hughes Aerospace but kept his computer business going from the basement of his parents' home. In 1997, he left Hughes to devote himself to the business, which he named Minerva after the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Mustachio, a friend from high school and college days, and a third friend, Kurt Anderson, pitched in evenings and weekends; Alex's dad kept the books.

For the first and only time, Alex had found something that totally absorbed him: He threw himself into his work, putting off scuba diving, skiing, even dating. He lived in Minerva's cramped quarters, dozing on a cot.

He had grand plans, saying he wanted his company to be a success so he could help take care of his family, including his sister, Allison, now 14, and brother Peter, 6. He'd even sketched out the design for a house he wanted to build for the family some day.

After Alex's death, keeping his company alive seemed the natural thing to do, his friends and family agreed. They manned the computers and phones, explaining to clients that Alex was gone but his company was not.

"Minerva was Alex's child and we were going to raise it the best we could without him," said Mustachio, who found Alex's body slumped on the floor of his office the night of Jan. 12. A few months later, Mustachio quit his engineering job to join Minerva.

The company isn't the same today as when Alex Subacz ran it. His family accepts that. "If my son wasn't there to start it, it wouldn't be there," said Marie Subacz. "You would have had a blank piece of paper with nothing on it. The only thing that would make me feel good is if my son were to walk through that door and say, 'Mom, I'm home.' "

She drew a long breath. "The next best thing is Minerva."