- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

FINLEYVILLE, Pa. (AP) - Fifty years ago, members of a tiny community nestled along the banks of Peters Creek had their hearts ripped out when they lost three of their own after a fire truck crashed while responding to a call to assist another department.

Amidst the heartbreak, the tragedy forged a true sense of community as local residents rallied around family and friends who lost loved ones.

Three Finleyville firefighters were killed and six were injured when their fire engine crashed on Bebout Road near Turkeyfoot Road in Peters Township while responding to a fire at a former coal company store in Lawrence, Cecil Township, Sept. 13, 1964. The fire was visible for miles, and about a dozen neighboring fire companies were called to assist.

The call to respond came in just before midnight Sept. 12. The crew from Finleyville was on a pumper truck when it went over a hillside while going around a bend. The truck landed, wheels up, and caught fire.

Killed as a result of the crash were Assistant Fire Chief John Stark, 48, and firefighters Arvin Kegel, 32, and Roy Simmons, 50. Kegel was trapped under the burning vehicle, while Stark was ejected. Kegel, a Union Township police officer, and Stark died Sept. 13. Simmons, a Union Township supervisor, died the following day.

Injured were fire Chief Charles (Scott) Crayton, Ross Garbart, Edward Hoppa, William Rellis Jr., John Smith and Porter Bruner. Their injuries ranged from life-threatening to minor.

Two Peters Township firefighters, Edward Swanson and Skip Tharp, received acid burns trying to free Kegel from the truck. David Faloon, a driver with Peters Township VFW Ambulance Service, spent an hour inside the fuel-soaked cab administering oxygen to Kegel.

Initial news reports speculated lights from an oncoming vehicle may have blinded Stark, causing him to go off the road. However, a cause of the crash was never established.

All three firefighters who died were married and had children. The outpouring of support for the firefighters and their families was overwhelming. So much food was provided that Finleyville Furniture, a major business about a block from the fire station, delivered refrigerators to the families of the fallen firefighters to handle the food being delivered. A round-the-clock smorgasbord was set up at the fire station for other firefighters who were standing vigil or were there to handle any emergencies for the Finleyville firefighters. A Finleyville councilman set up a fund to help the families.

Firefighters from across the area also came to stand vigil at the former Kennedy Funeral Home, now owned by Kegel’s son, Tim Kegel, who is assisted by his own son, David Kegel.

Pastor Kevin Young of First Presbyterian Church of Finleyville was a part of the community for only a few years after being named to lead the congregation. It did not take long for him to realize the impact of the tragedy. Two of the three killed were members of the church.

“I came to know that this community revolves around the fire department,” Young said. “A good majority of the congregation are firefighters. When that siren goes off during a service, they all seem to be checking out their pagers.

“This was such a large tragedy for this community,” he added. “It had such a long-reaching effect for those both directly and indirectly involved.”

Young recalled an encounter with a couple who, as newlyweds, rented an apartment across the street from the crash scene. They recalled the details of the horror that took place in front of their home.

Young said from the stories he was told, the town shut down when the firefighters were laid to rest. Mourners stood two abreast on Washington Avenue waiting to pay their respects. Flowers filled the fire station.

Jeff Lawrence, the current Finleyville fire chief, recalled going to a fire school several years ago where he met an older firefighter from another community.

“He saw I was wearing my Finleyville fire department shirt,” Lawrence said. “He told me that he remembered standing as honor guard outside the funeral home.”

Lawrence recalled growing up in the same apartment building where one of the injured firefighters lived and seeing the scars from the burns the man sustained in the crash. But it wasn’t until he was older that he truly understood what happened.

“I was born and raised in this fire department,” Lawrence said. “We remember them every September. I think the camaraderie we have from this has galvanized our department.”

Young, who said he feels as if he grew up in the Finleyville community, said he understands the need to mark this major milestone.

“They need to mourn and grieve and put it behind them,” Young said. “They can celebrate the strong community, held tighter because of this tragedy.”

The memorial service marking the 50th anniversary would not have taken place without the support of two members of Young’s congregation directly affected by the tragedy, Irene Kegel Allridge, widow of Arvin Kegel, and Crayton. Crayton, who walks with a cane as a result of his injuries, and Rellis are the only ones injured in the crash who are still alive.

The memorial will be part of the regular worship at 10:30 p.m. Sunday at the church, at 3595 Washington Ave. A luncheon will follow at the Finleyville Fire Department social hall at 3562 Washington.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1AFwj6Q

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, http://www.observer-reporter.com

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