By Rick Ritter

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — A tragedy and a mystery for the Baltimore City Fire Department. A veteran firefighter is found dead in a house hours after responding to a fire.

Rick Ritter has more on the unanswered questions about his death.

It’s a numb feeling Darlene Bethea wishes wasn’t a reality.

“I’m still numb. That’s why I’m even able to talk right now–because I can’t express it through tears. I have to hold up for my parents,” she said.

Just hours after her brother, 40-year veteran Lt. James Bethea is found dead, she opens up to WJZ.

“We just loved him dearly. I just still can’t believe that I’m standing here talking to you about my brother,” she said.

It all started around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. Flames erupted on the 700-block of E. North Avenue. Baltimore City Fire Department dispatched safety officer and 40-year veteran Lt. James Bethea to the vacant home to investigate.

“Generally, our safety officers do work alone. And Lt. Bethea was operating in that manner,” said Captain Roman Clark, Baltimore City Fire Department.

Just hours later, the horrifying news starts to spread.

“This is a very somber morning for the family of Baltimore City Fire Department,” said Chief Niles Ford, Baltimore City Fire Department.

Officials say the fire started in a vacant home. Lt. Bethea was responding to the unit next door. That’s where they found him dead inside the basement hours after he responded.

Sky Eye Chopper 13 was on scene when investigators removed Bethea’s body from the home before starting a procession down the street.

Family and friends describe the lieutenant as a one-of-a-kind guy, a loving, gentle father who was extremely intelligent and had a strong passion for his job.

“There was nothing he wouldn’t do for the city of Baltimore or for the community or for his family,” his sister said.

Investigators are still trying to determine how exactly Bethea died. They say it’s still a very active investigation.

The Baltimore City Fire Department says it’s standard procedure for its safety officers to work independently.

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