Firefighter Gary Stephens
Photo credit: Courtesy of WABC-TV
ELIZABETH, N.J. -- A homeless man who was living in the vacant home that caught fire has been charged with murder.
Emilio Vasques, 19, was charged with third degree arson and felony murder because a firefighter died.
A veteran firefighter was run over by a fire truck as it backed up in preparation to battle the flames.
Gary Stephens, 57, a 28-year veteran of the fire department, was hit at about 2:30 a.m. He was pronounced dead at Trinitas Regional Medical Center.
"The head and chest trauma was extremely severe," Mayor J. Christian Bollwage said of Stephens. "He never regained consciousness."
Stephens' death is the first fatality in the line of duty for an Elizabeth firefighter or police officer since 1980.
Bollwage said the truck was being driven by one of Stephens' longtime colleagues, a 25-year veteran of the fire department. It was moving at less than 5 mph when the accident occurred under a bridge supporting the New Jersey Turnpike.
Stephens was directing the vehicle with hand signals as it backed up to lay down hose for firefighters battling a fire at a vacant home a few blocks away.
He was hit after he turned to look at the fire, Bollwage said, noting that the driver of the truck was "devastated." He said the two men had worked together in Engine Company 2 for many years.
City officials said they did not anticipate charges being filed against Stephens' fellow firefighters, although the incident was under investigation.
The city had received several complaints about the home at 340 Marshall Street before Friday.
Vasquez, 19, admitted setting the fire that damaged the home in an effort to keep warm, police said. Authorities believe Vasquez had been living as a squatter there the past five days. No bail has been set.
Vasquez came to the attention of investigators after he arrived at Trinitas with face and hand burns at 3:30 a.m.
"It's an extremely sad day for our community," Bollwage said.
Firefighter Stephens leaves behind a mother, his wife Natalie and a brother. His father also was a firefighter in Elizabeth, from 1949 to 1973.
Republished with permission of WABC-TV.