Funeral services for Baltimore City fire investigator Lt. James Bethea at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Bethea died while investigating a recent fire after falling through the floor of a vacant rowhouse. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)
Hundreds of firefighters and law enforcement officers from as far away as Canada lined the street outside the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on Thursday to pay respects to Lt. James Bethea, a city fire safety officer who died of injuries suffered while responding to a blaze last week.
The two-hour private service at the cathedral on North Charles Street was preceded by a cavalcade of dozens of firetrucks and EMT vans that stretched for blocks. Bethea's coffin was taken to both the church and the interment at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens on a firetruck from Squad 40, the last firehouse Bethea worked at as a firefighter before becoming a safety officer.
The firetruck drove along the road leading to the church between rows of firefighters that stretched about the span of a football field, flanked by bagpipe players.
James Gardner, a retired Baltimore firefighter who worked with Bethea, delivered the eulogy. Gardner said in a phone interview after the service that he told mourners Bethea's service as a firefighter was a divine calling.
"It was God who put the specialness in him to impact so many lives," said Gardner. "His demise was untimely, but God sets the time for our arrival and for our departure. Between those times our responsibility is to complete the assignment that comes with our being.
"God chose to come get him while he was by himself, while everything had quieted down and everyone had gone," Gardner said. "He slowly slipped away, and now he's been called from labor to reward."
Fire officials said Bethea, a 40-year veteran of the department, was found dead Nov. 12 in a vacant building hours after he and firefighters responded to an early-morning blaze in the building next door in the 700 block of E. North Ave.
After the blaze was under control, Bethea began inspecting an adjacent vacant building, where his body was found. A medical examiner ruled that Bethea died of smoke inhalation after falling through a floor in the vacant rowhouse, where he remained for hours before an off-duty firefighter saw his car outside and called for help.
City officials said an investigation involving department personnel and federal workplace safety officials is under way.
Gov. Martin O'Malley ordered the Maryland flag lowered to half-staff Thursday to honor Bethea, who was 62. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was among those in attendance at the funeral.
Fire Department spokesman Capt. Roman Clark said Thursday that Bethea was revered by younger firefighters, whom he mentored.
"As a co-worker, you couldn't have asked for a better person to stand beside you and work along with you," he said. "[Firefighters] have came to pay their respects to a true icon. This is fitting for him."
Firefighters from other jurisdictions said they attended the funeral to offer support to their fellow firefighters.
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"This guy went into work that day expecting to go home. His family expected him to come home. It's unfortunate what has taken place," Jackson said. "His 41 years of service is a lot of dedication and commitment. Obviously, he had a passion for it."
Clark said that Bethea's long tenure is scarcely uncommon among firefighters.
"It's a tough loss," said Clark, a 38-year veteran firefighter. "Firefighters are special. It's a special job. We love what we do, and if we can stay healthy and well, we will continue to do it."