YOUNGWOOD BOROUGH, Pa. - Flags lowered to half-staff and a fire engine adorned with a black ribbon honored a firefighter killed in the line of duty in North Versailles.
Edwin “Lance” Wentzel was aiding in the search for a missing 55-year-old Wilmerding woman when he was hit and killed by a train Saturday in North Versailles.
The accident happened shortly before 6 p.m. near the Westinghouse Bridge.
Wentzel, 57, had been a member of the Youngwood Volunteer Fire Department since 1979. He was named Firefighter of the Year in 2012.
This past weekend, a fire engine adorned with a black ribbon was parked in front of the firehouse that Wentzel served in for so many years. His gear had been laid under a wreath.
“We lost a terrific firefighter. I lost a best friend to this department, to me, to this town,” said Youngwood fire Chief Lloyd Crago. “It's a tough loss. I've been the chief for 27 years and I've never had anybody really seriously injured at a call, an incident, any type of incident.”
Wentzel was a husband, father and grandfather.
On Monday, investigators told Channel 11 they believe with so much noise in the area, Wentzel heard the train too late. They think he was trying to get off the tracks and somehow fell back into its path.
His funeral will be held on Thursday at Westmoreland County Community College.
Meantime, the daughter of the woman missing is agonizing over the death.
"We are missing my mom tremendously, but I just think about that he had a family," said Chrissy Gazzo, Ruth Ann Mullennix's daughter.
Search crews had been out Saturday looking for Mullennix, who was last seen on March 17 in Wilmerding Borough, when the accident happened.
Norfolk Southern released the following statement Sunday:
“The search team had contacted NS to stop trains in the area Thursday at 12:30 a.m. to conduct its search. NS stopped all traffic in compliance with that request. The search team withdrew that request about three hours later at 3:23 a.m., at which point Norfolk Southern resumed normal train operations. Neither the NS police nor the NS Pittsburgh dispatch center were notified on Saturday before the search team resumed its search on Norfolk Southern’s property.”
Crago described Wentzel’s death as a freak accident.
“It's tragic, unexpected. When you get in this, you know there are dangers involved, but when it's one of our own -- one of your own -- it hits you a little harder,” said Crago.
Westmoreland County public information officer Dan Stevens said, “He continued to give back to the community even after his passing. He's not only an organ donor, but a tissue donor.”