Thomas Graves, Jr. became the first Prince George’s County firefighter to die in the line of duty in April 1980 when a natural gas explosion in a Glenn Dale apartment complex took his life while he was assisting crew members with ventilating a gas leak.
Although he died more than 30 years ago, Graves’ story was highlighted Friday as a proclamation from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was handed to his family on behalf of all fallen firefighters throughout the state.
The designation was a backdrop to the more than 1,300 public safety officers, state officials, families and supporters who paid tribute to all “fallen heroes” during the 27th annual Fallen Heroes Day Ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.
“There are so called heroes in sports, and then there are the real heroes in life,” said Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh, who spoke alongside O’Malley, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and others. “I do not understand how you go out there every single day and sacrifice for the greater good. That is what heroism is.”
Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor attended the ceremony to accompany Graves’ family members while receiving statewide recognition.
“This represents the dedication from the state to the families of all of the fallen firefighters in the state of Maryland,” said Bashoor. “I’m sure that they’re excited to accept that on behalf of all families, on behalf of all fallen firefighters across the state.”
Graves’ nieces and nephews, of Dunkirk, said it was an honor for them to receive the proclamation on behalf of all fallen firefighters and said Graves is truly missed, some of them noting that they were not yet alive when he was killed.
“It’s good to know that [Graves] did what he did for this state,” said Jessica Wall, 22, of her great-uncle. “I kind of wish I would’ve been able to meet him, to see what he was like.”
Graves graduated from DuVal High School in Lanham in 1967 while he was serving as a member of the West Lanham Volunteer Fire Department. He later joined the county fire department as a professional firefighter at a fire station in Glenn Dale. He became the first firefighter to die in the line of duty throughout the county department’s then 14-year history.
Prince George’s County Deputy Fire Chief Frank Underwood, who attended Friday’s ceremony, said he remembers listening to the radio dispatch during the incident while he was an early member in the department.
“They had gone into the building to make sure everyone was out and when the time came, the gas ignited,” Underwood said. “From what I remember, someone had hung stuff on the gas pipes in the building and it caused the pipe to break and the gas leaked.”
The focal point to the ceremony was fallen Maryland State Trooper Shaft Hunter who died in the line of duty after his cruiser crashed into the back of a tractor trailer on Interstate 95 May 21.
He was the only public safety official in Maryland to have died in 2011.
State police and Hunter’s family - his wife and six children paid tribute to the late state trooper in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Fallen Firefights Memorial followed by a 21-gun salute.
“Their legacies will remain with us,” said O’Malley during his memorial address on behalf of all of those killed in the line of duty. “For their sacrifice, we can never express enough gratitude.”