Nearly a week after authorities said two homeless people accidentally toppled a candle in an empty warehouse here and sparked this city's deadliest blaze, about 30,000 mourners paid tribute to six firefighters embraced as old-fashioned heroes for running into a burning building to save someone's life and forfeiting their own.

Their deaths, in a labyrinthine inferno last Friday, left four wives without husbands and 17 children without fathers in the advent of Christmas.

President Clinton, Vice President Gore and a legion of firefighters in full dress uniform from as far away as Australia thronged the streets of New England's second-largest city in a three-hour procession punctuated only by the mournful sound of bagpipes and drums and the lingering stench of smoke. Black bunting draped Rescue Unit 1, where firefighters in soot-stained uniforms placed hands on their hearts and saluted the passing columns.

Wearing black ribbons, the heavyhearted crowd slowly packed a downtown stadium for a memorial service recalling the dedication and courage of "Our Six." Hundreds more who could not fit into the 15,000-seat Worcester Centrum Centre walked to the warehouse, where Gore later joined firefighters still searching for the remaining four bodies of their comrades.

The fire--the nation's worst loss of firefighters' lives since 14 died in a Colorado wildfire five years ago--prompted Clinton to urge every American to thank their local contingent. At a time when fires are at a historic low, the Dec. 3 blaze caused the deadliest loss of Massachusetts firefighters' lives since nine were killed in 1972 at Boston's Hotel Vendome. Worcester had not lost a firefighter in the line of duty since 1962.

"[We] hope that by our collective presence we will speak louder than words in saying that your tragedy is ours; your men are ours; our whole country honors them and you," said Clinton, who met privately with the families and earlier this week declared a state of emergency in the area. "We grieve with you, and we will stay with you."

Said Mayor Raymond Mariano: "In Worcester, these are not the faces of unknown heroes. They are members of our family."

Six shiny yellow fire helmets sat on the stadium stage next to photographs of the firefighters and dozens of bouquets. Each family received a folded American flag and medal of honor, and the names of the six men will be inscribed on a memorial wall for fallen firefighters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

One firefighter's father buried his face in the flag and sobbed, while a grieving wife looked heavenward to stem a flood of tears and clutched the hands of her three young sons, all wearing blue Rescue 1 sweat shirts.

"The families and the kids are the hardest to look at," said New York City Lt. Robert Daly, a 20-year fire department veteran. "This is a little bit remembrance and a little bit kick in the butt because you don't know what's going to happen to you sometimes."

Authorities awaiting an investigation have only speculated about how the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. facility, a brick building built to be a giant refrigerator, transformed into a red-hot oven in a matter of seconds. Nuisance fires and squatters had been reported at the five-story structure, which had stood vacant for about a decade.

When the fire broke out about 6 p.m. Friday, it began as a normal operation, said District Chief Michael McNamee, the first officer to arrive on the scene. A local coffee shop owner alerted firefighters to the possibility that homeless people were inside, and more crew members headed in.

As the blaze grew, they became disoriented, losing their way in rooms lined with meat lockers on windowless floors. Two men were missing at the first roll call, two more at the next. Rescue teams went in and out, McNamee said, searching each floor several times until one half of the crew could not contact the other, and the heat became too intense.

"I said, 'We've lost four,' and then we found out at roll call there were two missing. Then it became six, and that's when you say, 'Oh my God,' " he said. "It could have been anyone of us. We could have lost 20."

The building's design may have contributed to the sudden conflagration, which led to the collapse of all five floors, McNamee said. The maze-like building had 18-inch brick walls and 6-inch cork paneling; polyurethane foam, a type of petroleum product, had been sprayed on its walls.

"It was the worst thing I've ever gone through," he said.

Killed in the blaze were Paul A. Brotherton, 41, the father of six sons and a favorite firehouse chef; Jeremiah "Jerry" M. Lucey, 38, who was filling in for a colleague who needed the day off; Lt. Thomas E. Spencer, 42, a father of three; James F. Lyons III, 34, who graduated first in his fire academy class; Timothy P. Jackson, 51, a 27-year firefighter and Vietnam veteran; and Joseph T. McGuirk, 38, whose extended family has more than 200 years of firefighting service.

"I'm very proud of him," said Lucey's wife, Michelle, gripping a charred firefighter's helmet in her hand at the fire scene Wednesday. "You know the danger at the back of your mind, but you never expect it to be reality. When it's your turn, it's reality."

Police charged Julie S. Barnes, 19, and Thomas S. Levesque, 37, with six counts each of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Authorities said the homeless couple, who are being held on $1 million cash bail, left the building and never reported the fire after they had tried but failed to put it out.

Six days later, private funerals have been scheduled only for Lyons and Jackson, whose bodies were recovered. Even as the president delivered his eulogy, firefighters here toiled at the still-smoldering building knowing four comrades lay entombed in the ruins.

Occasionally, they paused to watch the memorial service on a large outdoor television screen as a lone bagpiper played against the din of cranes. From their perch on the building, they also could see visitors flocking to a red fire engine nearby that had taken friends to their last alarm. And for some, the sight of the truck strewn with ribbons, photos, cellophane-wrapped carnations and children's cards was more than they could bear.

"It's awful, awful," said one Worcester firefighter. "As bad as the screams over the radio."

Risking Their Lives

Firefighter casualties have dropped over the past decade.

Deaths Fire injuries

1988 136 61,790

1989 118 58,250

1990 108 57,100

1991 109 55,830

1992 75 52,290

1993 77 52,885

1994 104 52,875

1995 96 50,640

1996 95 45,725

1997 94 40,920

1998 91 43,080

SOURCE: U.S. Fire Administration