Driving through Egg Harbor City this summer, Natalie Dempsey spotted a small garage fire, with some smoke and emergency vehicles lined down a street.
Most would keep moving, but not Dempsey, a volunteer firefighter with the Mizpah company in Hamilton Township.
The 21-year-old, who had been training for a fitness test to join the Police Academy, pulled over and grabbed her blue helmet and gear from the back of her car, where she always kept it in case of emergencies.
“She took things as they came and never moved fast a day in her life. ... But helping people made her move,” said her father, Christopher Dempsey.
Natalie Dempsey died Christmas morning in a single-vehicle crash on Landis Avenue in Mays Landing after she lost control of the vehicle and veered into a guardrail. She was on call, responding to a report of a chimney fire.
Local and national media outlets across the country have shared the tragic story of a hero who didn’t hesitate to lend a hand to others.
Friends and loved ones gathered Wednesday afternoon outside the family’s Mizpah home in a wooded area of the township.
Down the road, flowers and a makeshift memorial sit next to the crushed guardrail where Dempsey’s car made impact.
At 5 feet, 2 inches, Natalie Dempsey was “small but mighty,” her parents said — and she had a sense of humor.
On her fire helmet is a sticker that says: “If I had balls, they’d be bigger than yours.”
“She had such sarcasm,” said her mother, Stacey Dempsey. “She would just make you laugh no matter what the situation.”
For the past few months, Natalie Dempsey had been getting prepared for the rigorous physical test needed to join the Police Academy, with hopes of becoming a Class II officer in Cape May.
She narrowly failed her first try over the summer but, determined to pass, reapplied for a winter exam.
“It wasn’t gonna stop her,” Christopher Dempsey said.
Natalie Dempsey grew up in South Jersey, but the family moved to Texas when she was 10, her mother said. She graduated from Hutto High School in Hutto, Texas.
But they returned to Hamilton about a year and a half ago and opened a Galloway Township restaurant, the Chill and Grub.
That’s where Dempsey assisted her parents through difficult financial times.
She worked as a manager before it closed down in August, then got a job as a shelter supervisor at the Humane Society of Atlantic County in Atlantic City.
Christopher Dempsey said his daughter gave a majority of her paycheck to her parents to help pay the bills.
“She wanted to make sure we were OK,” he said. “She was taking care of us, and it’s supposed to be the other way around. We never asked for anything.”
Her goal was to become a K-9 police officer, something she realized during her first semester at a community college in Texas, her family said. Dempsey wanted to merge her love of animals — three dogs run around the family’s house — with her desire to help others.
Dempsey’s death has touched the community and beyond. Law enforcement throughout the state have expressed condolences to the local fire company and Dempsey’s family.
Outside the Mizpah firehouse on Dehirsch Avenue, where Dempsey rose to the position of vice president in a little over a year, a flag flew at half staff. A sign outside read “Mizpah Strong.”
“We are like a close-knit family,” said Mizpah Fire Chief Jay Davenport. “This one hit us hard.”
Steve Dash, executive director of the Humane Society of Atlantic County, wrote a tribute to Dempsey online, calling her a “happy, smiling, little spit fire” who devoted herself to helping others.
“Natalie has touched all of our lives in a positive way,” Dash said.