THE SIGHT of black bunting draping Engine Company 10 and Engine Company 26 tells you that something terrible went wrong. The D.C. Fire Department is a sadder place today as a result of a double loss -- the death of two firefighters in a single blaze. A firefighting tragedy of that magnitude hasn't occurred in the District since 1911.

As of yesterday, investigators were still trying to determine what started the fire early Sunday in the basement of a Fort Lincoln town house in Northeast Washington. This much is known. Firefighter Anthony Phillips, 30, a four-year member of Engine Company 10 was in the living room of that house, along with Louis Matthews, 29, an eight-year member of Engine Company 26, and two others: Joseph Morgan Jr., 36, and Lt. Charles Redding, 41.

All four had rushed into the burning home, looking for someone who might still be inside, when -- within seconds -- the living room became engulfed in flames. The inferno was brought on by the explosion of gases superheated from fire in the basement below. Veteran firefighters call the blast a "flashover." Hell on earth is more like it.

Lt. Redding was treated and released from the hospital Monday afternoon. Joseph Morgan remains hospitalized in critical condition with burns over more than half his body. Anthony Phillips, who always wanted to be in the action, was dead in less than an hour after the explosion. Louis Matthews, another highly regarded firefighter, died Monday afternoon. The couple who lived in the house had scrambled to safety before the four firefighters arrived.

It all happened so quickly. One moment, everything at the scene is going as it should; the next, a disaster. And yet with all that uncertainty and risk, today and tomorrow and for days to come, firefighters -- a breed unto themselves -- will continue taking on dangers that the rest of us avoid at all costs. That is why this city will pause to honor Anthony Phillips and Louis Matthews later this week. They may be gone, but their legacy of bravery, unselfish service and sacrifice will live on.