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Lt. James Bethea, a 40-year veteran of the Baltimore Fire Department, was found dead in a vacant house that was adjacent to a house in the 700 block of North Avenue where he responded to a fire hours earlier. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore police and fire officials are investigating the death of a veteran Baltimore firefighter who responded to a blaze at a vacant rowhouse early Wednesday and was found dead hours later in the home next door.

Lt. James Bethea, 62, a fire safety officer who spent 40 years with the department, was found in the basement of a home in the 700 block of E. North Ave., across from Green Mount Cemetery. Fire officials said they didn't yet know the cause of death.

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"That is being investigated. We don't know if it was an accident or natural causes," said a department spokesman, Capt. Roman Clark, during a news conference at the department's downtown headquarters.

Another firefighter spotted Bethea's SUV parked in front of the home about 7 a.m. — 31/2 hours after the fire had been extinguished and all other personnel had left.

Officials said they didn't know why fire crews left without accounting for Bethea, or why he stayed at the scene. And it remains unclear what communication Bethea had with dispatchers. Fire officials said that responders generally acknowledge when they leave a scene.

"This is early in the investigation," Fire Chief Niles Ford said.

Ford said the department would solicit outside jurisdictions to help with an internal investigation into the department's policies and procedures. He said the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also would investigate the incident.

"We are going to do a serious and thorough investigation, and we are going to be extremely open about what happens here," Ford said.

Baltimore police also are involved in the investigation; the department investigates all unattended deaths.

Firefighters were called to a dwelling fire at 708 E. North Ave. at 12:28 a.m. Bethea, the safety officer, arrived at 12:43 a.m. The fire was declared under control just a few minutes later. All fire units were recalled to fire stations or sent to other emergencies by about 3:30 a.m.

Officials said a passing off-duty firefighter noticed Bethea's vehicle was still at the scene at 7 a.m. and called it in. Officials returned and found Bethea's body in a basement in the vacant home at 710 E. North Ave., next door to the scene of the fire.

The body was taken to the medical examiner's office for an autopsy.

Ford said Bethea had gone into service as a safety officer for the department "because he's passionate about safety and the safety of our people."

He said firefighters in the safety division were extremely upset at the news of Bethea's death.

"He was a mentor... he was a father figure," Ford said.

"I've known Jimmy for a lot years," said Michael Campbell, president of the fire officers union. "This is not only tragic for his family, but the citizens of Baltimore.

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"He looked after our folks. He took that job very seriously," Campbell said.

A woman who answered at the Bethea family's home declined to comment.

Greenmount and Homewood avenues were closed for several hours Wednesday as police and fire personnel investigated the scene. A small crowd gathered at the street corner outside yellow police tape, watching uniformed officers duck into the brick rowhouse.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that Bethea "spent decades in service helping to make Baltimore a safer place. He will be missed, and my thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very difficult time."

Recruit Racheal M. Wilson was the last city firefighter to die on the job. She was fatally injured during a live burn exercise in 2007.

Officials determined that national safety standards were not followed, and several high-ranking Baltimore fire officials lost their jobs as a result of the investigation. Her death temporarily halted live burn exercises.

Baltimore County firefighter Robert Fogle III, a 27-year veteran, died of a heart attack during exercises at the Sparrows Point training facility in May. Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company firefighter Gene Kirchner, 25, died of injuries suffered as he searched for victims in a house fire in April 2013.

In a 1991 interview published in The Baltimore Sun, Bethea spoke about another city firefighter who had died during an accident.

"Sometimes we have a tendency to identify heroes by the number of awards or physical things they have to show," Bethea said, "but all we need to do is look at the way he carried himself."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.

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