EMERGENCIES WERE nothing new to the family of John T. Williams, respected and dedicated member of D.C. Fire Department Engine Company No. 6. Mr. Williams, a 10-year department veteran assigned to Rescue Squad No. 1 "lived firefighting," according to his wife, Linda, who met him when he was an ambulance driver and she was a nurse in the emergency room at Howard University Hospital. When the two of them would go out of town on a trip, Mrs. Williams recalls, "he would visit the local firehouses and talk about firefighting." But in the early hours of Wednesday -- doing what he did best for the people of this city -- Mr. Williams fell to his death as he worked to search for five people reportedly trapped in flames at 14th and H streets NW.

Mr. Williams stepped onto an old air duct that was covered by a piece of tin and fell through the marquee of the Capital Book Store. Two other firefighters who heard him scream tried to pull him out, a fire department spokesman said, but lost their grips. "Big John," as some of his comrades affectionately referred to him, died of a broken neck, according to the D.C. medical examiner.

As it turned out, the firefighters would later learn that none of the 20 customers in the store at the time was trapped. But as Battalion Chief George Capps remarked, "that's the way it goes. We break our necks and bust our guts, and usually no one is inside. But you have to do what you have to do. . . . John was just doing his job and he paid the supreme price. . . . That's the chance we all take every time we go out of here."

It is, and as Deputy Mayor Thomas Downs noted, Mr. Williams had always taken it in stride. "He was a good, quiet, strong, professional fireman." The people he served -- all of us -- are grateful for that dedication.