A volunteer firefighter who was helping search for a missing woman was struck and killed by a train Saturday night in North Versailles, Allegheny County police said.
The firefighter, Edwin “Jeff” Wentzel, served with the Youngwood Volunteer Fire Department in Westmoreland County for 35 years, said Youngwood fire Chief Lloyd Crago.
“I’m sorry for his family and the department,” the chief said. “We suffered a great loss today out trying to do our job.”
Mr. Wentzel, 57, of Youngwood was struck by a Norfolk Southern train at 5:46 p.m. near Elder Street under the Westinghouse Bridge.
Chief Crago said he was “not sure how it happened.” Westmoreland County public safety spokesman Dan Stevens said he believed it was an accident.
Allegheny County homicide detectives are investigating. An autopsy will be performed today, the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office said.
Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said the mixed-freight train was heading east from Conway to Altoona. It had two locomotives, 36 full cars and 49 that were empty, he said.
In the area where Mr. Wentzel was struck, the track was intended for a 40-mph train, though Mr. Pidgeon said late Saturday night that he was unsure how fast it was going.
About 10 people from the Youngwood fire station were part of a search crew of volunteers and canines out again Saturday looking for 55-year-old Ruth Mullennix, who was last seen Monday night in Wilmerding, authorities said. Her coat and cell phone were found Thursday in a rail yard beneath the Westinghouse Bridge, according to KDKA-TV.
Mr. Wentzel, who fellow firefighters knew as “Lance,” was a dedicated community servant, Chief Crago said.
He was a life member who had remained active with the company of about 35 members, Mr. Stevens said. Mr. Wentzel held various positions as a line officer and on the board of directors. He had also served as the assistant fire chief.
In 2012, Mr. Wentzel was named firefighter of the year, Mr. Stevens said. He worked with the canine team for two years.
Chief Crago said that in 27 years as chief he had never seen a serious injury among Youngwood firefighters.
“An unbelievable accident happened here,” he said.
Chief Crago said Mr. Wentzel was a good person and family man. He is survived by his wife and four children.
Late Saturday night, the search crew, Mr. Wentzel’s family and fellow firefighters met at the Westmoreland station, where the flag flew at half-staff.
“This is a brotherhood of firefighters standing strong, not only for each other, but the family, too,” Mr. Stevens said.
Funeral arrangements are expected to be made today, he said.
Lexi Belculfine: email@example.com or 412-263-1878. Twitter: @LexiBelc. First Published March 22, 2014 8:10 PM