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Train Hits, Kills Firefighter During Search For Missing Woman

NORTH VERSAILLES (KDKA) -- The search for a missing Wilmerding woman took a tragic turn Saturday evening when a local volunteer firefighter, who was part of the search crew, was struck by a train and killed.

Edwin J. "Lance" Wentzel, 57, was a 35-year veteran of the Youngwood Volunteer Fire Department in Westmoreland County. He was hit from behind by a Norfolk Southern freight train.

Wentzel was part of a team from the fire department that brought canines in to help in the search for 55-year-old Ruth Mullennix of Wilmerding. She hasn't been seen since Monday night.

Swissvale Police contacted the fire department for help.

The search area was near the railroad tracks beneath the Westinghouse Bridge in North Versailles. Mullennix's coat and cell phone were found Thursday in a rail yard beneath the bridge.

Wentzel was walking alongside the railroad tracks early Saturday evening when the train approached him from behind.

KDKA Photographer Bryce Lutz witnessed the accident.

Lutz: "I was shooting video, I was zoomed in, and the guy was walking along the gravel, he walked up onto the tracks and he didn't see the train coming, didn't hear it – I don't know – but it just hit him."

KDKA's Ralph Iannotti: "Did you hear a train whistle?"

Lutz: "I heard a whistle. I'm not sure if it was that train or another train coming from the opposite direction."

Members of the fire department immediately dashed from the search staging area about 100 yards from where Wentzel was hurt.

They were clearly distraught by what had happened.

The official search for Mullennix was immediately suspended.

A spokeswoman for the family reacted to the tragedy.

"It's a horrible situation," said Dawn Weichler, a family friend. "I mean, we had firefighters and dog rescue people who came out to help find Ruth Fogel Mullennix, and we lost a life today. And I found out on my way here that life is a cousin of a friend mine. So, it's very tragic in more ways than one."

Allegheny County homicide investigators and the Medical Examiner's Office were called to the scene.

The flag at the Youngwood Volunteer Fire Department has been lowered to half-staff after the death of one of their firefighters who was helping in the search for a missing woman. (Photo Credit: KDKA Photojournalist Greg Benedict)

Following the accident, the Youngwood Fire Department has released a statement.

It reads in part: "Lance joined the YVFD on Feb. 12, 1979, and was a life member with 35 years of service. He held numerous positions during his career. He was named the Firefighter of the Year in 2012. He is survived by his wife, Judy, sons, Chris and Jeremy, and several grandchildren."

Stay with KDKA for the latest on this developing story.

Police Search For Missing North Versailles Woman (3/20/14)
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