The 18 firefighters stood in a row, at attention, awaiting his arrival.

When President Barack Obama arrived at the firehouse on 8th Avenue and 48th Street late Thursday morning, he received a rousing ovation.

"Hey everybody," Obama said at the home of Engine Company 54, Ladder No. 4, Battalion 9. "It's good to be here."

Obama, accompanied by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, shook hands with the firefighters and then gave an impromptu speech, thanking them for their "heroic acts" on 9/11. The president said: "This is a symbolic site of the extraordinary sacrifice that was made on that terrible day."

Obama thanked the firefighters for their work, not just on 9/11, but every day.

"You guys make sacrifices every day," he said. "It doesn't get as much notoriety, it doesn't get as much attention, but every time you run into a burning building, every time you save lives, you're making a difference."

The house is nicknamed "The Pride of Midtown."

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But, it is another motto, emblazoned on the company's trucks, that truly defines it.

The house is in the heart of the Theatre District -- and it's motto is: "Never Missed A Performance." The photographs at the entrance to the firehouse remain a stark reminder to the real weight of those words -- and to the sacrifice cited by the president on Thursday.

The pictures are of 15 firefighters from Engine 54, who were among the 343 FDNY members lost in the terror attacks of 9/11. Those photographs are a testament to the will, the resolve, of those who continue to serve.

That no matter what, the show must go on.

As Obama said, telling the men on duty Thursday that the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden four days ago transcended partisan politics, "When we say we will never forget we mean what we say."

Chief Edward Kilduff said he believes the firehouse is symbolic of the sacrifice made by first responders on 9/11.

"For him to come here and see the faces of the firefighters killed on 9/11 . . . I think the president was truly touched," Kilduff said after the presidential visit, calling Obama "a wonderful guest."

Kilduff said the president "connected well" with the firefighters and said he seemed "genuinely very appreciative of what all first responders do."

"He wanted to communicate that with the first-responder community," Kilduff said.

The president joined the firefighters on duty for what Kilduff called an informal lunch filled with banter.

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The menu included eggplant Parmigiana, pasta with scallops, shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes in a cream sauce, and a spring mix salad with Dijon balsamic dressing. The lunch also included talk about the Mets, Yankees, Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

Firefighter Joe Ceravolo, who prepared the meal, said the president "loved the shrimp" and the eggplant Parmigiana. He said Obama "was a real down-to-earth guy. It was like hanging out with the rest of the guys in the firehouse."

The president left the firehouse at about 12:15 p.m. As he left, Obama waved at the crowd as his car turned into 48th Street toward 7th Avenue.

Earlier, outside the firehouse spectators began to gather.

Some waved flags and chanting "USA" and "Obama."

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One woman in the crowd displayed a white T-shirt that read: "Obama got Osama."

Douglas Esposit, 60, who resides part time in Huntington and the Upper West Side, stood among the crowd.

"It all started on 9/11," he said, "and it ended on 5/11."

With Michael Amon