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Fire that claimed lives of 2 Lehigh County firefighters deemed 'suspicious'

Firefighters Zachary Paris and Marvin Gruber.jpg
Kelly Sulca Hernandez

WEST PENN TWP., Pa. — A fire that claimed the lives of two volunteer firefighters from Lehigh County is being investigated as suspicious, the township police chief said Thursday afternoon.

Police Chief James Bonner said the investigation into the blaze in Schuylkill County is continuing. He said at a news conference that authorities weren't ready to make a determination.

"This incident remains an active investigation," Bonner said. “We’re in the evidence-gathering" stage.

The firefighters, from the New Tripoli Community Fire Company several miles away, were being mourned by Lehigh Valley first responders and those from around Pennsylvania on Thursday.

Authorities identified the firefighters as First Assistant Chief Zachary Paris, 36, and Firefighter Marvin Gruber, 59. Both are listed as members on the New Tripoli department’s website.

Gruber also served as assistant chief of the Northampton Community College Department of Public Safety.

  • Two volunteer firefighters perished in a fire in West Penn Township, Schuylkill County, on Wednesday
  • They were identified as members of the New Tripoli Community Fire Company
  • Area first responders posted tributes to the two men Wednesday evening, saying their sacrifice would not be forgotten

Late Thursday morning, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the commonwealth flag to fly at half-staff at the Pennsylvania Capitol Complex and all commonwealth facilities statewide in their honor.

Pennsylvania State Police Trooper David Beohm said authorities who responded to the fire scene in the 1100 block of Clamtown Road discovered the body of another person outside the house on the property.

Bonner identified that man as Christopher Kammerdiener, 35, one of the residents of the home. The Republican-Herald of Pottsville reported he was found in a wooded area behind the house, dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

MORE: In close-knit New Tripoli, heavy hearts — and memories

Bonner said two people — “an uncle and nephew” — lived in the home and were able to escape the flames. He said two other West Penn firefighters were treated for injuries, including one who was flown to a hospital and remained Thursday in intensive care.

Officials said more than 100 firefighters and officers responded to what was later described as an "active crime scene."

Bonner said initial reports were that a resident was entrapped in the structure.

"Upon arrival to the house [it] was fully engulfed, with smoke and the initial fire toward the back of the building. Searches were conducted," he said.

He said "the fire went to a third alarm, with fire units from Schuylkill County, Lehigh County, Carbon County and Berks County dispatched to assist," he said.

According to the Incident Page Network dispatches published on Broadcastify, a mayday call was made for the two firefighters trapped on the second floor of the burning home around 4:42 p.m. Nearly 40 minutes elapsed before the incident commander reported the firefighters had been pulled from the house.

The Career Firefighters Association, a labor union in Frederick County, Maryland, posted on Facebook Wednesday night that Paris joined the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Service on Feb. 28, 2022, as a member of Recruit Class 32. He graduated on Sept. 10, 2022.

“Firefighter Paris leaves behind his wife, and 2 young daughters. We ask that you please keep Firefighter Paris’s family in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time,” the post said.

Gruber was a beloved member of the staff at Northampton Community College and his loss weighs heavily, said Keith Morris, chief of the Department of Public Safety.

"Marvin was well-respected and loved here at both the college and the Department of Public Safety," he said Thursday morning.

Gruber worked at NCC for 22 years including the past 15 in public safety, according to a statement issued by the college.

"He died a hero in the line of duty, doing what he did best, helping and protecting others while selflessly serving his community with honor and integrity," said the statement. "While at NCC, he always had students’ best interest at heart, and was dedicated to making our college a better place. He will be profoundly missed."

On Wednesday evening, the Allentown Fire Department expressed its “deepest sympathy to the family and friends of the two New Tripoli firefighters who died today in the line of duty.”

On Facebook, the city’s EMS services also posted, “The City of Allentown Paramedics joins the Emergency Services community in mourning the loss of 2 county firefighters killed in the line of duty this evening.

"These brave men encountered intense fire and succumbed to the conditions while trying to perform a rescue of a citizen. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten.

Our thoughts and condolences to the responders and families affected by this tragedy.”

In a Facebook post on Thursday morning, the Northampton County District Attorney's Office wrote, "All of us at the district attorney's office express our deepest condolences to the New Tripoli Fire Department, and to the family and friends who lost two brave men in the line of duty last night during a fire in Schuylkill County. To Marvin Gruber and Zachary Paris, thank you for your selfless service. We're thinking of you all in this difficult time."

State police and the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms are assisting in the investigation.

In a news conference Thursday morning, a statement from the fire department was made:

"The Community Fire Company is deeply saddened. These firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice. They are truly heroes."

At the same news conference, Trooper Nathan Branosky said viewing and funeral plans are being made, and details will be released to the public.

At the site of the fire Thursday, the perimeter of the home continued to be dotted with debris as investigations continued. All visible windows were destroyed and the aluminum roof warped and caved in, including a large collapse toward the back of the home.

Police, fire and ATF officials examined the scene, including using a drone. The home continues to be roped off via police tape.

The home's interior, visible through the windows, was blackened with some jutting-out beams and other severe damage. The home is not close enough to any other homes to result in damage to them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.