- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) - Although it happened nearly a half-century ago, Norlyn Senger, 87, remembers the crash like it was yesterday.

The Harrisonburg Rescue Squad member was riding in an ambulance on his way to an emergency call on Ridge Road. As the ambulance crested a hill on Port Republic Road and slid on a patch of ice, he watched a tree suddenly come into view.

“I thought, ‘My golly, it’s headed right toward me,’” Senger said, “so I got my hands off the dash and about the time we hit that tree, the radiator busted and the battery was busted.”

It took another ambulance and the “jaws of life” to pull Senger out from the wreckage and transport him to the hospital for a broken leg.

His youngest daughter, Kristi Luddy, 50, also remembers that night.

She had been staying at a friend’s house when her mother called and told her to come home.

“She said, ‘I heard your dad on the radio, but I don’t hear him anymore,’” Luddy said. “That was pretty scary because Mom knew all the codes - she knew what those things meant - but she didn’t hear Dad’s voice and that terrified her.”

Senger, a life member with the organization after serving for 35 years, was one of the 17 volunteer firemen who formed the rescue squad in September 1949.

The catalyst for the squad’s creation is traced back to two incidents: a fatal explosion in July 1947 that demolished the Masters Building on South Main Street, and floods that ravaged the Harrisonburg area two years later.

From those disasters, a handful of the city’s volunteer firemen joined together to form a group that was dedicated to emergency medical response.

Charter members of the squad included Senger and his father Dewey and William Bowman, Lawrence Bryan, H.K. Darr, D. Dellinger, Warren Denton, Warren Early, Fred Earman, Harry Earman, Boyd Garber, Bill Humes, Roy Leach, Buddy McInturff, Lawrence Long, Ormand Lorentz and John Stearn.

Out of those men, Senger, who was 22 when he signed up, is the last one living.

He retired from the squad in March 1985.

Not long after the squad was formed, Senger said, a horn “you could hear all over town” would sound from the station alerting members it was time to respond to an emergency call.

It was one of these calls, Senger said, “that really got to me.”

“The most scary thing,” he said, “was that wreck down there at Bar-B-Q Ranch that killed eight people.”

A driver had pulled into the center lane on U.S. 11 north of Harrisonburg to get something to eat around midnight, Senger said, and a drunken driver plowed into it at about 90 mph in a head-on collision.

While Carson Rinker, a member of the squad from the 1950s to ‘80s, took the squad’s GMC panel truck, Senger hopped into an ambulance and drove to the scene.

“I pulled up,” he said, “and they said it’s (his kids) Sandy and Sunny Senger all there in the Cadillac dead.

“It just so happened that the car was a red Cadillac convertible just like mine,” he added. “The only thing is it had white seats and mine had red seats. I jumped out and ran and saw it had white seats and knew it wasn’t mine.”

Rinker, 77, fondly remembers taking rescue calls alongside Senger.

“Psychologically, he was Mr. Cool,” Rinker said. “Nothing bothered that fella no matter what.”

Other than the wrecks that gradually became more frequent, Senger said, the squad wasn’t kept too busy at first.

“If we had two calls a day, we thought we were doing something,” he said.

“We were worn out if we ran three calls,” his oldest daughter, Sandy Harper, 65, said.

Harper was a lifetime member squad, serving for 10 years starting in 1975. She retired from the squad at the same time as her father.

“Dad was an excellent teacher,” she said. “I would even challenge current members to be able to go out in the field, and if you ran into a problem that textbooks don’t teach you, there’s the man to call.”

During his time with the rescue squad, Senger worked for 22 years overseeing the crew of paperboys who delivered issues of the Daily News-Record to Harrisonburg doorsteps.

One of those boys was Doug Bowman, who described Senger as “kind of like a father figure.”

Bowman, now 67 and a plumbing contractor, is the son of the late charter member William Bowman, who was the rescue squad’s first president.

He said he remembers visiting his father as a young boy at the rescue squad’s Newman Avenue station it shared with Fire Company No. 1.

“It was fun,” he said. “I think one of the best things I enjoyed was getting the little 6?-inch Cokes, and then laying on the pool table and sliding down the fire pole.”

The Harrisonburg Rescue Squad moved locations from Newman Avenue to Maryland Avenue in 1970. It moved to its current location at Reservoir Street in 2003.

Mike Neff, current president of the rescue squad, joined in 1986.

“When I talk with Norlyn, I come back and try to share what Norlyn tells me” to younger members, Neff said. “It amazes people.”

Today, the rescue squad handles an average of 24 calls per day and can field upward of 700 calls in a month, Neff said.

In 2014, the squad received 8,161 calls for service, its website says, which set a yearly record. And this past April, the squad received 774 calls for service, which is a monthly record.

The squad also has about 140 active members, a giant leap from the original 17 charter members who used to man the station.

Each year, the rescue squad recognizes one of its members with the Norlyn Senger Distinguished Service Award.

“It usually goes to a member we feel put in the same commitment Norlyn put in back when he was in it,” Neff said. “Someone who just gives a lot of time to the agency and is dedicated to what we do.”

In January, the squad’s top call runner, Zack Leet, 20, received the award.

Senger still works six days a week at Senger’s Sales & Service - the same business he’s run since 1959 - with his sons, Sunny, 64, and Kelly, 57.

“People ask me when I’m going to retire,” Senger said, “and you know what I tell them? When I expire.”

Harper credited Senger’s late mother, Maude, for blessing him with “good genes” and a dedicated work ethic.

“She would get down on her behind on the front walk on Campbell Street and take the sharpest paring knife she could find and trim the grass around the walk that way,” she said. “I think that’s where Dad’s longevity comes from and his ability to remember.”

Leslie Ney, a life member of the rescue squad who started in 1974, said she admired Senger for “everything he did for the agency.”

“He loved it so much and cared so much,” she said. “Back then, he probably ran just about every call there was.”

After 65 years of service and exponential growth, the rescue squad continues to be staffed entirely by volunteers.

“At first, the undertakers was against us, the state police was against us, the city police was against us, because when we started they thought it was going to be a fad, was going to be three months at the most,” said Senger. “But look how long it’s been.”


Information from: Daily News-Record, https://www.dnronline.com

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