Chief: Deceased Veteran Firefighter Was Alone on Scene, Could Have Fallen

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James Bethea
Lt. James Bethea

The veteran Baltimore firefighter who was found dead in a vacant home on Wednesday died of smoke inhalation, authorities said. However, questions remain regarding the circumstances surrounding Lt. James Bethea’s mysterious death, and why he wasn’t found for hours.

Bethea, a 40-year Baltimore firefighter, was found in the basement of a rowhouse at 710 E. North Ave. The 62-year-old worked as a fire safety officer, and was investigating the area after firefighters put out a blaze at the home next door. His death was ruled accidental, but the events that lead up to his death remain under investigation.

Bethea was alone as he conducted his investigation to ensure the scene was under control, according to Baltimore City Fire Chief Niles Ford. In Baltimore City, fire safety officers often work alone, and have independence to investigate a scene to make sure all buildings are safe. Based on usual procedure, he may have been in the adjacent home to investigate whether the fire had spread to the other building, Ford said. But it’s still not known why Bethea went back to the scene after the rest of the firefighters had left.

While Bethea died of smoke inhalation, other factors may have been involved in his death.

“We believe there was a fall involved…There was no floor in the rear of that building. That’s something we do know,” Ford said, noting that he also could have gotten to the basement another way.

Bethea was discovered after an off-duty firefighter found his vehicle around 7 a.m., which was more than three hours after the rest of the fire department personnel who responded to the blaze left the scene, and more than seven hours after the fire started. The Ford SUV was in the traffic lane instead of the shoulder, which indicated to the firefighter that something was wrong. Ford said the department is still investigating when Bethea was last seen alive.

According to Ford, the final results of the fire department’s internal investigation won’t be available for at least another month. OSHA and other external agencies are also probing the matter, and the results of those investigations will take even longer.

“Everyone that was on that scene or associated with this call – I don’t care if they were at a pump console where they couldn’t see what was going on – they’re writing a report to tell us what we think that happened, everything they put their hands on and everything they saw,” Ford said.

Fire Chief Niles Ford addresses the investigation.
Fire Chief Niles Ford addresses the investigation.

As the investigation begins to progress, members of the fire department remain reeling from the loss of a well-respected officer, who was loved and respected in the community, as well as in the dangerous profession where he worked.

“This guy carried a lieutenant bugle, which is one bugle,” Ford said, referring to the insignia department officers wear. “But when he walked in the room, my folks will tell you, he commanded respect like he had five.” (Five bugles are reserved for the chief).

The chief said he also met with Bethea’s family, which he called “very difficult.”

“This is painful,” he said.

Ford said he wants the external investigations done not only to find out what happened in this case, but so future tragedies can be prevented. He said he is considering creating a position called Chief of Safety and Risk Management to oversee firefighters’ well-being, as well as other policy changes. In the short-term, Ford said he implemented a policy that the last apparatus leaving the scene has to radio that they are clearing the scene.

“We put on good funerals,” Ford said. “I don’t want to put on one of them.”

Funeral arrangements for James Bethea are as follows: Viewing is at Wylie Funeral Home (701 N Mount St.) on Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 18-19. A funeral will be held Thurs., Nov 20, at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen (5200 N. Charles St.).

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