2 Pa. firefighters eulogized as ‘humble heroes’

Almost 1,000 people attended the service for Community Fire Company members Zachary Paris and Marvin Gruber in person, and over 1,000 more watched a livestream


By Daniel Patrick Sheehan
The Morning Call

SCHUYLKILL COUNTY, Pa. — Most every eulogy has a story that tugs smiles from the depths of bereavement. Gary Kuntz shared one such story, about the time Zachary Paris, in a bit of unintended slapstick, dropped his flashlight onto a glue trap on the floor of the fire station and proceeded to get the trap stuck to his arm as he tried to wrest the flashlight loose.

“A good chuckle was had as a result,” said Kuntz, chief of the Community Fire Company of New Tripoli and eulogist at Saturday’s joint funeral of Paris, the assistant chief, and firefighter Marvin Gruber, who died Dec. 7 in a house fire in Schuylkill County.

To accommodate an enormous crowd of mourners, the funeral was held in the auditorium of Northwestern Lehigh Middle School.
To accommodate an enormous crowd of mourners, the funeral was held in the auditorium of Northwestern Lehigh Middle School. (Photo/Rick Kintzel/Tribune News Service)

It was a stunning twin loss to a community that spreads across many country miles but is nonetheless as tight-knit as any small town. To accommodate an enormous crowd of mourners, the funeral was held in the auditorium of Northwestern Lehigh Middle School, a couple of miles from the fire station where Paris began volunteering in 2010 and Gruber in 2020.

Portraits of the uniformed men stood behind the flag-covered caskets on the stage — Paris, 36, on the left, sporting the bushy mustache that gave him the look of a firefighter from another era, and Gruber, 59, on the right, wearing the warm smile so familiar to the community where his family has lived for generations.

Shortly after 2 p.m., a combined fire service honor guard and pipe and drum corps marched into the auditorium to the loud tattoo of drums and bagpipes playing an Irish tune called “The Dawning of the Day.”

The melancholy keen of the pipes filled the room as tearful family members were escorted to their seats. The presentation of colors followed — firefighters with gleaming axes flanked the flag bearers — as “America the Beautiful” segued into “God Bless America.” The drums faded as the corps filed out.

The Rev. Walter F. Frisch of Ebenezer United Church of Christ — where Gruber, his friend and high school classmate, served as a deacon — opened the funeral with a prayer and read the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew.

“God blesses those people who grieve,” he said. “They will be comforted.”

Paris, a 2005 graduate of Fleetwood High School in Berks County, also was a professional firefighter in Frederick County, Maryland, working 24-hour shifts and traveling home during his two days off.

He left behind his wife of 12 years, Elizabeth, and daughters Lila and Amelia, in addition to his parents and sister. The avid motorcyclist’s beloved Harley-Davidson Road King stood outside the school with a turnout coat folded on the ground in front of it.

Gruber, who worked in the public safety department at Northampton Community College, celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary in June with his wife and high-school sweetheart, Karen. His son, Nick, is a deputy chief with the company. He also had a daughter, Jordan, and three grandchildren who called him Pop-Pop.

Among the dignitaries at the funeral were state Sen.-elect Jarrett Coleman, Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Charles J. McGarvey and Lehigh County Executive Phil Armstrong, who sounded similar notes of gratitude, grief and praise.

“Our hometown heroes made the decision to show up for us,” Coleman said, reminding the crowd how first responders make daily sacrifices and, sometimes, the ultimate sacrifice. “I live in a safe Pennsylvania because of heroes like Marvin and Zachary. When people are running away, first responders are running in to help.”

McGarvey passed along condolences from Gov. Tom Wolf and his wife and offered his own prayers for the families and friends of the firefighters.

He shared a quote from Thucydides, a historian and general of ancient Greece: “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”

“That is exactly what those two heroes did Dec. 7,” McGarvey said.

People stand in line to pay their respects on Saturday at the public viewing and funeral for Community Fire Company of New Tripoli firefighters Zachary Paris, 36, and Marvin Gruber, 59.
People stand in line to pay their respects on Saturday at the public viewing and funeral for Community Fire Company of New Tripoli firefighters Zachary Paris, 36, and Marvin Gruber, 59. (Photo/Rick Kintzel/Tribune News Service)

The auditorium, which holds 800, was filled to capacity, with another 100 honor guard members standing solemnly. More than 1,100 others watched a livestream of the service on YouTube.

Earlier, hundreds attended the public viewing — firefighters, police officers, soldiers, bikers, clergy and people in ordinary garb whose vocations weren’t apparent but whose purpose was clear: to honor the fallen men and the dedication to public service they carried to the end.

Kuntz — whose eulogy followed a solo guitar performance of the song “Kickstart My Heart” by heavy metal band Motley Crue — said Paris and Gruber were known around the station as Zach and Marv.

“Two of the most laid-back, gentle souls you could ever meet,” he said. “These two men were leaders, mentors, friends, volunteers and brothers. These two men gave their lives while protecting others. Have no doubt in your minds, these two men are heroes.”

Kuntz said Paris was shy, even timid, “but loved by everyone when they got to know him.”

Gruber was a mentor to the younger firefighters. When a job around the firehouse wasn’t done quite to satisfaction, Kuntz recalled, Gruber would say, “We’re gonna church this up a little bit.”

The fire that claimed Paris and Gruber broke out in a house in the village of Clamtown in West Penn Township. Someone was thought to be trapped inside. The firefighters entered the house to search. Not long after, an evacuation alarm was sounded. Minutes later, one of the men shouted “mayday” three times, along with their location, before falling silent.

The resident thought to be trapped, Christopher Kammerdiener, wasn’t in the house. He was discovered about 200 yards from the house, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.

While authorities investigate, the community grieves. Kuntz said he and his firefighters will do what Gruber and Paris would want them to do.

“We will pick up the pieces and move forward,” he said.

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