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Death of Youngwood firefighter by train ruled accidental

| Friday, April 4, 2014, 12:44 p.m.

The death of a Youngwood volunteer firefighter hit by a train last month while searching for a woman has been ruled accidental by the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office.

A spokesman for Dr. Karl Williams said on Friday that there are no plans to hold an inquest into the accident that killed Edwin “Lance” Wentzel, 57.

Wentzel was part of a team searching for Ann Mullennix, 55, of Wilmerding, who disappeared on March 17. She has not been found.

Federal officials said they will not investigate the accident.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which has authority to investigate railroad accidents, said the board plans no review of the incident.

The board has investigated other accidents involving people killed while walking on railroad tracks.

In March, it investigated the death of an electrician killed by a train while restoring power to the tracks. The month before, the board investigated an accident that killed one member of a film crew and injured six others.

An NTSB spokesman referred further questions to the Federal Railroad Administration.

An FRA spokesman said his agency investigates “select railroad accidents” when changes are needed in safety standards or operating rules. It investigates about 100 accidents annually but did not plan to look at the accident that killed Wentzel.

Spokesman Warren Faltau said Wentzel's death was considered a “trespassing event and underscores a need for coordination” because Norfolk Southern officials said they were not notified that the search was under way on the day he was hit.

Wentzel was killed while walking in a narrow area between two sets of railroad tracks in North Versailles beneath the Westinghouse Bridge.

Witnesses said one train was approaching Wentzel when another one coming from behind him struck and killed him.

In the days before the accident, the search had started, then stopped, and each time Norfolk Southern was notified, rail officials said.

Railroad officials said they had no record of being notified about the search on the day Wentzel was killed.

David Pidgeon, a railroad spokesman, declined to say whether Norfolk Southern has been able to determine why it was not notified about the search. He would not reveal the speed at which the train was traveling.

Youngwood fire Chief Lloyd Crago, who witnessed the accident, said he spoke with an East Pittsburgh police officer at the scene who told him that he would relay a message to rail officials that the search was under way.

East Pittsburgh police have not returned numerous phone calls seeking comment.

“Maybe I took it for granted that he would call Norfolk Southern. He said, ‘I'll call the rail yard,' ” Crago said. “Somebody knew we were there. I talked to Norfolk Southern, and they told me, ‘We're trying to find the glitch in our system.' ”

Crago said he had reviewed police reports of the accident and expected the ruling.

“I witnessed everything,” the chief said. “I knew what happened. It was a tragic accident. It was truly an accident. It was nobody's fault.”

Crago said he expected federal investigators from the NTSB or the FRA to contact him as part of a probe, but no one has called.

“I was prepared to hear from everybody,” he said. “I was prepared for everything, but I haven't heard anything.”

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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