From the Ashes

updated 11/08/1999 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/08/1999 AT 01:00 AM EST

Four years ago, as the Paulsboro, N.J., fire department began to contemplate its centennial in 1999, fourth-generation volunteer firefighter Gary Stevenson set out to write a modest pamphlet on the department's history. But the project took on a life of its own, and Stevenson, 40, began spending four hours a night poring over newspaper archives. "I wanted to honor all those firemen that went before me," he says. "I never dreamed what would come out of a history book."

By the time he finished in January, Stevenson had not only written a 325-page account of the department, he had brought about the unlikely reunion of an extended family whose members had long ago lost touch with one another. That story began in 1932, when a blaze engulfed the home of John and Lillian Bell, killing their four children, aged 8 months to 13 years. It was the greatest tragedy in the fire department's history, and it figures prominently in Stevenson's book. After a local newspaper ran a piece on his work last March, the Mobil Oil lab technician got a midnight phone call from Robert "Troy" Hulmes, 60, of Mantua, N.J. Based on information provided over the years by his adoptive parents, Hulmes suspected he was related to the children who died. Stevenson quickly realized that the Bells were indeed Hulmes's birth parents and that the dead children were his brothers and sisters.

Spurred to investigate further, Stevenson went to Clarksboro's Eglington Cemetery and found that the four little fire victims lay in an unmarked plot. "There's no marker, nothing," he said in a speech at the fire department's 100th anniversary dinner on April 16. "It would be nice if we could do something."

Moved by his appeal, 40 fire-association members split the $1,000 cost of a headstone. Then, a few days before its Oct. 9 dedication, John Bell, 66, an auto mechanic in nearby Monroeville, read a newspaper account of the Bell family's tragic story and Troy Hulmes's discovery. Bell immediately phoned the brother he'd always known he had but could never find. "After that," says Stevenson, "things started to snowball."

At the graveyard ceremony, as brother met brother, cousin met cousin, and uncles and aunts met nephews and nieces, the Bell family's sad story unfolded. After the fire on March 17, 1932—started by a faulty stove—Lillian, who had been saved by a neighbor, and her husband, who had been working the night shift at a local oil plant, rebuilt their home and had five more children: John, George, Calvin, Anna and Robert. But after John died of cancer in 1941, his destitute widow gave the children up to foster homes. She soon remarried and had two more daughters but by her death in 1978 had lost contact with her other children.

The reunited Bells have discovered some surprising connections. For example, John ate at the Five Points Diner in neighboring Deptford every Saturday for years. His regular waitress, it now turns out, was his niece—Robert's daughter. "This has been the best thing that ever happened to me," says John Bell, who—with his brother Robert—is still absorbing the shock. Though they know that their brother George died in 1985, they are still looking for Calvin and Anna and hope to find the missing siblings in time for a Thanksgiving reunion.

For Stevenson it seemed a fitting conclusion to a labor of love. "The more he got involved with the book, the more interested he was," says his wife, Rae, 38. "I'd say, 'Gary, it's time to go to bed,' and he'd say, 'Okay, let me just finish this.' "

Of course neither the fire department nor Stevenson, the father of two, have any prospect of getting rich from the book, which has sold about 100 copies at $25 each. But Stevenson feels even a bestseller couldn't have brought a greater reward. "After seeing what the Bells went through," he says, "you can't help but appreciate what you have."

Bruce Frankel
Matt Birkbeck in Paulsboro

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