Fallen firefighters make the long journey home

Dec. 9—NEW PHILADELPHIA — Escorted by a column of police vehicles, two hearses containing the bodies of fallen firefighters left the Schuylkill County Coroner's Office at the Simon Kramer Institute at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

For Zachary Paris, 36, and Marvin Gruber, 59, it was the beginning of a long journey home to Community Fire Company in New Tripoli, Lehigh County.

Paris, assistant fire chief, and Gruber perished in a devastating fire Wednesday in Clamtown, a village in West Penn Twp.

Rescued from the burning house by specially trained firefighters, they were taken to St. Luke's Hospital-Miners Campus in Coaldale, where they were pronounced dead Wednesday evening.

The news of their passing in the line of duty spread rapidly through the close-knit volunteer fire company community, and Paris and Gruber were accorded a tribute of a magnitude rarely seen.

The initial column of 18 vehicles that left Simon Kramer Institute was joined by fire, rescue and emergency medical apparatus from across Schuylkill County and beyond.

Headed east on Route 209 toward Tamaqua, the column of an estimated 90 vehicles stretched for about a half-mile.

Along Route 209 at MaryD, firefighters in uniform saluted as the entourage passed. At Tuscarora, units from McAdoo and Freeland stood at attention as the hearses passed.

It took about 15 minutes for the column to pass down West Broad Street in Tamaqua. Units from Schuylkill Haven, Orwigsburg, Shenandoah, Tremont, New Philadelphia, Minersville and Cressona passed in a show of respect augmented by people on the sidewalks waving American flags. Among units representing Pottsville was Phoenix's No. 21 truck.

Tamaqua police cordoned off the left lane of West Broad Street to allow the apparatus to pass.

In a touching tribute, Matt and Linda Yeager sat in front of their West Broad Street house, waving American flags as the firefighters passed.

"They're heroes," Matt said. "What a send-off."

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the commonwealth flag to fly at half-staff at the Pennsylvania Capitol Complex and all state facilities statewide in honor of the two Lehigh County firefighters and a third who died Tuesday in Huntingdon County.

A Dark Day

Mark Richards, chief of Virginville Fire Company, described the mood of firefighters as one of sheer silence in respect for their deceased comrades.

"It was a dark day for all firefighters everywhere. Every firefighter should go home to their family," said Richards, whose company has a mutual aid agreement with Community Fire Company. "They gave the ultimate sacrifice while volunteering to serve their community to the end."

Virginville firefighters were among the units that stood by as the procession of emergency vehicles reached New Tripoli.

The line of traffic following the vehicles on Route 309 stretched to the top of the Blue Mountain, a distance of more than 3 miles.

A delegation from Community Fire Company escorted the hearses to the fire company, about 2 miles from Route 309.

In front of the fire company, which was draped in black, firefighters saluted the entourage upon arrival. In silence, they laid their hands upon the hearses.

The news of two volunteer firefighters losing their lives while fighting a fire swept through the close-knit Pennsylvania German community in Lehigh County.

Bambi Snyder, who volunteers in social events at the fire company, stood along Route 309 as the firefighters arrived.

"They're everyday heroes," she said. "Words can't express the feeling people have for them."

Frank Junger, 85, a fire policeman in Lynnport, struggled to maintain composure as he contemplated the loss.

"I was a friend of Zack Paris," he said. "He was an amazing young man and a terrific firefighter."

Paris had a farm in the area around New Tripoli, Junger said.

"Everybody's devastated," Junger said. "It's such a shock to lose people that you know."

Paris had previously been involved with the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services in Maryland.

"There are no words to describe the sadness myself and the our members are feeling today," Fire Chief Tom Coe said in a news release. "Not only was Zach someone who was living out his dream of becoming a career firefighter, but he was also living our his dream as a family man."

The International Association of Firefighters Local 3666 president Stephen Jones also reacted to Paris' loss.

"Losing another of our brothers, especially at this time of year, is heartbeaking," he said. "We stand ready to support his wife and children during this tragic time."

At Katie's Family Restaurant, a local gathering place near Northwestern Lehigh High School, customers were saddened.

Paris and Gruber were regular customers who had been at the restaurant as recently as last weekend, said a waitress, who asked not to be identified.

Bob Breiner, a New Tripoli mechanic who was having breakfast, said the loss was especially devastating with Christmas only a couple weeks away.

"It's not a good thing anytime, but especially at this time of year," he said. "The man had a wife and two young children."

Contact the writer: rdevlin@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6007