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Family recalls fallen firefighter's concern for others, love of city

Family recalls fallen firefighter's concern for others, love of city.

Lt. James Bethea's job was to make sure firefighters were safe. His mission to protect didn't stop at the end of his shift, family members say.

At his home Thursday, they recalled how Bethea, a city Fire Department officer whose death at a fire scene Wednesday remains under investigation, would check people's smoke alarms, point out when a grill was too close to the house, and even casually inspect attic ventilation.

"Is this up to code?" his son Darryl Bethea said with a smile, recalling his father's comment when he toured Darryl's first home.

Bethea, 62, died after responding to an early-morning fire at a vacant home on East North Avenue. He was the safety officer — a position he had held for 15 years.

He and other firefighters were called to the blaze at 12:28 a.m. About two hours later, crews were cleared and placed back into service.

Bethea's body was found in the basement of a rowhouse adjacent to the fire scene more than three hours later, after a passerby noticed his car parked outside.

City fire spokesman Roman Clark did not provide any additional information Thursday about the circumstances surrounding Bethea's death. Officials have said they don't know why he remained at the scene after crews left, or why officials thought he was back in service when his vehicle was still parked there.

Officials said they also don't know what Bethea was doing in the adjacent building, or how he died. The primary role of a fire safety officer is to make sure buildings are safe for firefighters, officials said.

A spokesperson with the medical examiner's office said an autopsy was being done Thursday, but results could take days.

Fire Chief Niles Ford has promised a thorough investigation into Bethea's death, and a review of departmental practices and policies.

Darryl Bethea and his stepmother, Brenda Pridgen, declined to comment on the circumstances of Bethea's death. Bethea's sister, Darlene, said the department has not provided additional information but "they have been very supportive."

She said her older brother took safety "very seriously."

"Fire safety was truly his passion," she said. "He protected and loved his family with his whole heart."

Several firefighters gathered at James Bethea's home Thursday night as his family made funeral arrangements.

Bethea spent 40 years as firefighter. He was also a part-time driver for The Baltimore Sun for 24½ years, until his retirement in January. Pridgen said he had considered retirement from the Fire Department several times, but felt he had a duty to continue to serve Baltimore and the department.

"He loved this city," Pridgen said. When she would bring up the idea of perhaps moving elsewhere, he would say, "When I retire," she said.

They met when she took an unplanned nap while cooking some French fries — and soon firefighters were at her door.

One of them was Bethea. Months later, the two met again, when Pridgen cut her hand while riding the bus. She figured the nearby fire station would have a bandage. Again, it was Bethea who tended to her.

Early in their relationship, she had been concerned about his safety, but he eased her fears, proving that he took every precaution. For 33 years, he always came home, until Wednesday.

"Up until November 12, I had no fear," Pridgen said.

Darryl Bethea said his father had been hurt before on the job, but his commitment was never shaken.

He said his dad loved golf and, as with fire safety, was keen on teaching others.

Darlene Bethea recalled how her brother would play at the Forest Park Golf Course near her home and ask her to bring over bottles of water. He loved to travel, taking trips to the Bahamas, even Russia. And he loved to cook. He learned much from his mother, she said, but also picked up some skills in the firehouse kitchen.

He was already assigned to cook the Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry stuffing for his family. His specialty, his sister said, was sweet potato pies.

She said that in the past week, her brother saw many family members. He recently dropped off banana pudding and bean soup for his parents and spent a day last week playing with his 3-year-old grandson, Ethan.

It was almost as if he was making the rounds, she said, touching base with those whose well-being he held dear.

"It was just amazing how God plans," his sister said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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