In New Tripoli and far beyond, messages of grief and sympathy flashing on digital signs outside churches and schools tell passersby what befell two of the area’s firefighters last week.
But the sharpest symbol of loss stands outside the Community Fire Company, where volunteers Zachary Paris and Marvin Gruber are remembered with a simple memorial made from their helmets, boots and turnout coats.
How many times did Paris and Gruber don their gear and roll on emergency calls? Fires, crashes, rescues. Their final call came Dec. 7 in Schuylkill County, where they entered a burning house in search of a man who, it turned out, lay dead of a self-inflicted gunshot in woods 200 yards away.
Paris, the 36-year-old assistant chief, and Gruber, 59, who joined the department two years ago, never made it out of the house. It is still unclear what happened. An order to evacuate came shortly before one of the men shouted “mayday” over his radio several times and then fell silent.
The firefighters were pulled from the building but died at the hospital. What’s left now, beyond the simmering grief, is a twin mystery: how the fire started and why the resident of the house, 35-year-old Christopher Kammerdiener, killed himself. Authorities have called the fire “suspicious.”
As the investigation unfolds, the community is preparing to remember Paris and Gruber with two services Saturday, one public and the other private. They will be held at Northwestern Middle School, to accommodate what will surely be massive crowds.
An unpublicized memorial was held Wednesday at Ebenezer United Church of Christ, a short drive from the fire station. Fire trucks filled the parking lot, including two parked side by side with a giant American flag suspended between their raised ladders.
“You don’t expect a small fire company like this to have that kind of tragedy happen,” said Bob Billig, a retired Northwestern School District music teacher who was visiting Ontelaunee Park across from the church.
Billig said he’s sure he had Gruber as a student decades ago, because every student in the district passed through his class. He didn’t remember him out of all the thousands of young people he instructed, but he checked an old yearbook and found a picture of Gruber in a football team photo, standing in the back row in jersey number 73 and squinting at the camera from under a mop of hair.
New Tripoli is in Lynn Township, which feeds the school district along with Heidelberg, Lowhill and Weisenberg townships. For all that territory, it’s a tight-knit community, Billig said, noting that the pastor of Ebenezer church graduated with Gruber in the Class of 1981. Indeed, they are in the same team photo.
Gruber worked at Northampton Community College for 22 years. He’s survived by his wife, their two children and three grandchildren. Paris, a career firefighter with the Division of Frederick County Fire and Rescue Services in Maryland, was the father of two daughters.
The area remembers its heroes. Route 309 in Lynn Township is named for Brandon Van Parys, a 2005 Northwestern graduate who joined the Marines and died in combat in Iraq’s Anbar province in 2007. A stretch of Route 100 in Lowhill is named for 1996 graduate Mark Resh, an Army pilot who also died in Iraq 2007 when his Apache helicopter was shot down.
The names of Paris and Gruber will almost surely be engraved somewhere to mark their passage through the community’s history.
“It makes me feel how much I appreciate what volunteers do and how we all take it for granted but shouldn’t,” said Randy Hensinger, who lives about 10 miles from New Tripoli and stopped as he passed through to take pictures of the trucks at the church.
“They’re just so dedicated to the cause,” he said.
Back at the firehouse, some motorists stopped to snap photos of the turnout gear, as did a sad-eyed young woman in a firefighter’s dress uniform who had just come from the memorial.
She didn’t want to say anything. But the helmets and coats and boots said enough.
Morning Call reporter Daniel Patrick Sheehan can be reached at 610-820-6598 or email@example.com.