Officer Robert Bousquet, keeping watch in his patrol car outside what remains of Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co., sees them hour after hour: Families and close friends of six firefighters mourned by President Clinton and the nation after perishing in a tremendous blaze here nearly four weeks ago. Acquaintances and strangers, young and old, who witnessed six funerals in as many days that stripped husbands from wives and left 17 children without fathers.

They stream by like religious pilgrims to view the scooped-out shell of an immense building, to smell the lingering aroma of charred timber and, sometimes, to select a brick souvenir from the mountain of rubble that will disappear long before memories of this disaster fade from their minds. The Dec. 3 blaze represented the deadliest loss of American firefighters' lives since more than a dozen perished in a Colorado wildfire five years ago.

"People come in and out of here all the time. They come in here to pray, some to take pictures," said Bousquet. "People just can't get over it."

As the rest of the world nears a new millennium and looks to the future, many of those who live in New England's second-largest city are having a difficult time letting go of the past. Their tragedy this holiday season has only been amplified by recent events. Four firefighters injured and 40 people left homeless after a four-alarm fire decimated an apartment building here Wednesday. A third-generation Boston-area firefighter dead after suffering a heart attack while answering a false alarm. Two Massachusetts police officers killed in the line of duty.

And three firefighters and three children--1-year-old twins and a first-grader--killed last week in a burning building in a small town in Iowa, whose bereaved mayor called his counterpart in Worcester for solace and advice.

"There's no way you can prepare yourself for the staggering nature of the pain. The whole thing is like a bad dream," said Worcester Mayor Raymond Mariano, who canceled New Year's Day inauguration plans and described the tragedy as more emotional than the death of his mother. "This community is changed forever by what happened."

Exactly how Worcester, in the midst of a revitalization effort, ultimately will absorb its loss remains to be seen. Only now has calm descended upon this city of roughly 160,000 after the departure of volunteers, media crews and out-of-town firefighters. The fire engine decorated with wreaths and condolence cards is back at work, the yellow police tape is gone, and aluminum fencing and "Keep Out" signs surround the warehouse ruins.

Yet black ribbons still wrap street lamps and bunting drapes Rescue Unit 1, where the close-knit fraternity inside continues to receive grief counseling. As if that were not reminder enough, a giant billboard hovers over the city, the six men pictured above the words, "Our Fallen Heroes in the Line of Duty." Discussions of a memorial monument are premature, Mariano said. The last funeral was held only nine days ago, and the wounds are fresh.

Killed in the blaze were Paul A. Brotherton, 41; Jeremiah "Jerry" M. Lucey, 38; Lt. Thomas E. Spencer, 42; James F. Lyons III, 34; Timothy P. Jackson, 51; and Joseph T. McGuirk, 38, whose extended family has more than 200 years of firefighting service. An estimated 30,000 mourners, including the president and vice president, attended a procession and memorial service. Hundreds more attended each funeral.

"The reality is slowly beginning to settle in that six of our family members are no longer with us," said firefighter Tom Creamer. "We live with each other, we eat our meals with each other, we literally sleep in the same building with each other. We celebrate our holidays and our kids' graduations from high school together, and we deal with each other's sorrows. So when people talk about the brotherhood in the fire service, it is often nearly as close as the bond we have with our own families."

Equal to the grief, though, is an unprecedented level of community spirit, people here say. At least six people were rescued from the most recent blaze, and an estimated $4 million has been donated to a fund for the fallen firefighters' families. Thousands of small acts of kindness--poems and casseroles, an outpouring of clothing and blankets--have brought the residents of Worcester together in unexpected ways.

Tom Kaplanes, 31, said he was amazed at how his community bonded. "We don't live here anymore, but this is our home town, and we came to pay our respects," said Kaplanes, who stopped at the fire site on his way home from Boston with his sisters. "Everyone will always know what you mean when you say 'The Fire' in Worcester."

Christmas sermons this weekend referred to "Our Six" but focused on finding relief amid the suffering. "The joy of Christmas can't impede us," the Rev. Joseph A. Coonan of St. John's Church, which overlooks the warehouse ruins, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "You can still be joyful and be sad."

Hopes are high, too, that some of this city's challenges finally will be confronted. Elected officials are planning to examine issues surrounding vacant and abandoned buildings, such as the warehouse, which reportedly was listed by the fire department as a dangerous structure and will soon be demolished. Two days after Worcester legislators filed a bill requiring vacant building owners to provide floor plans to fire and police departments, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced that his city also would create an abandoned-building database.

Authorities said a homeless couple, who are being held on $1 million cash bail, lived in the building sporadically and caused the blaze that killed the six firefighters by accidentally knocking over a candle during an argument and then leaving the building. Homeless advocates are cautiously optimistic that their agenda will be put on the front public-policy burner, especially since occupancy at the only emergency shelter in Worcester is already topping last year's figures.

They are heartened to know that it would have been easy for the community to blame the couple for their wrenching loss, said Philip Mangano, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. But most people here--including the men who lost their brothers--have acted in the spirit of sympathetic sorrow and generosity that overwhelms this holiday season.

"The firemen set the tone of forgiveness," Mangano said, "and that's the tone that carried the day."

CAPTION: Firefighter John E. Carey, center, and hundreds of mourners gather for a moment of silence Dec. 17 at the Worcester, Mass., site where six firefighters died in the line of duty.