Two Camden firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty were buried in graves unmarked for decades at Pennsauken’s Arlington Park Cemetery, and city Fire Department historian Lee Ryan was among those who didn’t think their posthumous anonymity was fitting.
“They’re heroes,” said Ryan, 70, a retired Oaklyn volunteer firefighter. “They’re our brothers.”
Indeed they are. And on Sept. 17, firefighters and dignitaries will gather at the cemetery to unveil individual granite grave markers for Camden’s early 20th century fire chief Charles Worthington and fire captain Martin B. Carrigan. Volunteers raised more than $2,000 to have the markers made and installed, and organizers of the ceremony have been trying to find family members of the two men to invite as honored guests, so far without success.
"These two men made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Capt. Samuel Munoz, a 19-year department veteran who heads the union representing commanding officers. “They deserve this honor.”
Said Phil Cohen, the founder and webmaster of the indispensable all-things-Camden-history site DVRBS.com, which has many pages devoted to the Fire Department: “I’d been trying to get something done about the graves for more than 10 years. Lee picked up the baton.”
Worthington was 47 when he fell from the roof of a burning Delaware Avenue electroplating business and was fatally injured on the night of May 8, 1914. Carrigan, 40, was buried along with several of his men under debris from a collapsing parapet and roof at a Kaighns Avenue department-store blaze on Jan. 22, 1922.
In March 1906, Worthington and Carrigan were among nine Camden firefighters hurt in a city armory inferno that also claimed the lives of three of their brethren and made the front page of the New York Times. Some 24 city firefighters have died in the line of duty or succumbed later to related injuries, Ryan said.
“We have always lived by the credo of a brotherhood and sisterhood, serving the community,” said Pete Perez, a 15-year veteran of the department and vice-president of the union representing 141 rank-and-file firefighters.
“Our membership was determined to do whatever was necessary to recognize where these men are buried,” he said.
The locations of both graves are recorded at Arlington, a well-kept burial ground on Cove Road. “We’re happy to have played a small role in helping the Fire Department,” said spokesperson John MacNamara.
Ryan told me Worthington’s family long ago requested there be no marker, a request that was honored for nearly a century until Cohen, a skilled amateur historian, managed to track down the late chief’s granddaughter in Florida. She wrote a notarized letter authorizing Arlington to have a marker placed there at some point in the future (Cohen said he has recently been unable to reconnect with her).
It was not unusual a century ago for families to forgo gravestones for various reasons, said MacNamara, who also said he was not familiar with any restrictions on the Worthington grave.
The sacrifice of the two heroes has not been overlooked. Both men’s names are etched in the handsome monument to fallen city firefighters that was dedicated outside department headquarters in downtown Camden in 2006.
“Firefighters are willing to put their lives on the line for us every day,” Mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran said. “I look forward to participating in the ceremony. And this fall the city will celebrate the 150th birthday of the department.”
The city established a paid, or professional, fire department in 1869 with a few pieces of equipment, including two horse-drawn, steam-fired engines to pump water through hoses and onto fires. William Abels was the first chief.
“That’s his photo on the wall,” Ryan told me during my visit to his Westmont home. We were sitting in what he calls his office but what others would likely call a mini-museum. Ryan has been collecting artifacts and memorabilia related to the history of firefighting in Camden, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities for more than 40 years.
Carefully arranged pieces of the collection on display include ceremonial trumpets and utilitarian items, such as vintage buckets (as in bucket brigade). Among the oldest is a stovepipe hat worn by a member of the city’s old Weccacoe volunteer fire company and dating from the 1840s.
Ryan, a board member of the Fireman’s Hall Museum in Philadelphia and who wrote a comprehensive history for the Fire Department’s 125th anniversary, said the grave markers are a mission accomplished for members of the community, many generations strong, of individuals and family members of those who have been in the fire service.
"It’s awesome we’ve been able to make this happen,” said Deputy Chief Edward Glassman, a 30-year veteran of the fire service.
Said Ryan: “It needed to get done. And we got it done.”