Edwin Jeffrey Wentzel -- "Lance" to those who knew him in Youngwood -- was a runner.
"I can remember in the summer, coming down one of the streets in town on a hot July day; it would be 90 degrees," said Lloyd Crago, chief of the Youngwood Volunteer Hose Company No. 1 and Mr. Wentzel's close friend for more than 30 years. "I'd pull up beside him, kidding, saying 'Come on, get in the car, it's nice and cool in here.'
"But he wouldn't. He just loved to run."
This week, as online condolences arrive from as far away as Santa Monica, Calif., to Saskatchewan, Canada, members of the Youngwood VFD are still coming to grips with the pain of losing one of their own.
Mr. Wentzel, 57, died Saturday when he was struck and killed by a Norfolk Southern freight train. He and his colleagues were searching for a missing Wilmerding woman near the Westinghouse Bridge in North Versailles.
The Youngwood VFD has a K-9 unit of 10 dogs. Mr. Wentzel and another firefighter were combing the area as "flankers" with another member who was handling the dog, "Rusty."
According to Chief Crago, the group had been called back and another set of searchers was going to canvass the area. Walking back to where the VFD had convened with three local police departments, they approached two sets of train tracks.
Trains moving at reduced speed, in opposite directions, were within sight. Stepping onto the lower set of tracks, Mr. Wentzel was hit from behind.
"It's the one thing you can't explain. ... I told my firemen, 'This is nobody's fault,' " Chief Crago said.
Assistant Chief Bob Coletta is a manager for Scott Electric, a wholesale distributor in Greensburg. Mr. Wentzel worked there since 1977, most recently as a salesman in the company's "dealer" division.
"Lance was a very 'take-it-as-it-is' guy. I never saw him get mad. Well, maybe when he was coaching me in midget football," he added with a small laugh.
The assistant chief gathered Mr. Wentzel's co-workers Monday morning to explain what happened, "and when they saw the empty chair, it was very emotional."
Although he served the community for more than 35 years, Mr. Wentzel, a Hempfield High School graduate, was still out there battling blazes.
"About two months ago at a fire in East Huntingdon, he and I went in together with our masks on," Chief Coletta said. "He was probably one of the top three guys, in the best shape, in our department."
In an era when volunteer fire department membership is dwindling, colleagues said, Mr. Wentzel will be especially missed. He was the department's 2012 "Fireman of the Year."
"He was not only dedicated to answering alarms, he was dedicated to every fundraiser. There aren't people around like that anymore," Chief Coletta said.
"I'm in charge of our carnival and I take a week's vacation, so does Lance. He's been my co-chairman on the carnival for years," Chief Crago said.
"I think that will be one of the biggest impacts on the fire department. He was one of the guys who was there every day. He'll be missed."
Gov. Tom Corbett has ordered state flags flown at half-staff in the Capitol Complex in Harrisburg, as well as commonwealth flags in Westmoreland County, in honor of Mr. Wentzel. They will remain so until sunset Thursday, the day of his interment.
Mr. Wentzel is survived by his wife, Judith; sons Jeffrey Jeremiah of Youngwood and Christopher William of Hempfield; stepsons Justin Vestrand of Jeannette and Jason Vestrand of Youngwood; three grandchildren; a brother, Philip Wentzel of Youngwood; and four sisters, Judith Wagner of Carolina Shores, N.C., Connie Watson of Tampa, Fla., Bonnie Kucenic of Greensburg and Doris Santone of Youngwood.
Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today at C. Richard McCauley Funeral Home, 101 S. Fourth St., Youngwood. Firefighters wishing to pay their respects are asked to attend the evening session and the funeral service, which will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Westmoreland Community College Science Center auditorium. Interment will follow at Westmoreland County Memorial Park, Greensburg.
Contributions may be made to the Youngwood Volunteer Hose Company No. 1, 104 S. Second St., Youngwood, PA 15697.
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478.