ZELIENOPLE, Pa. – Two teenage volunteer firefighters who were reported missing after they didn't show up for a training drill for their small-town department died along with a friend when their SUV slid off a road and into an icy western Pennsylvania pond.
The bodies of firefighters Elijah Lunsford and Sam Bucci, both 18 and students at Seneca Valley High School along with the third victim, 17-year-old Trevor Barkley, were pulled from the pond Wednesday morning, Zelienpole Fire Chief Rob Reeb said.
Spencer Matthew, 18, a schoolmate and fellow volunteer firefighter in the three-stoplight town of Zelienople, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, said he went to school briefly Wednesday before leaving.
"Emotions around the school were all gloom and sadness," Matthew said.
Matthew said that he's been a member of the volunteer fire department since he was 14, and that Lunsford and Bucci joined after he brought them around in recent years.
Lunsford had been with the department for two years and Bucci for more than a year, Fire Chief Rob Reeb said. They were like sons to many of the 48 firefighters in the company, he said.
"Both the young men are an asset to the community," he said, speaking to reporters in the fire station's truck bay as two black wreaths hung outside and flags flew at half-staff.
Nearby, wire mesh shelving held the firefighters' boots, coats and other "turnout" gear. Heavy coats belonging to Lunsford and Bucci were laid over their boots on the ground, with one black ribbon each in front of their gear.
The Butler County coroner determined all three drowned. The cause of the crash was still under investigation Wednesday, but Miller said speeding did not appear to be a factor. Lunsford's family owned the Ford Explorer, but it wasn't immediately clear who was driving, he said.
"It appears there's some stones on the road and it may have lost control," Miller said. Snow coated the road Wednesday morning.
Lunsford and Bucci didn't show up for their weekly drill meeting on Tuesday night, leading worried colleagues and relatives to call around in an effort to find them. The fire department responded to a call early Wednesday of an overturned vehicle that police had found, and divers from a neighboring county recovered the bodies over the next several hours.
It wasn't clear why Barkley was with the two firefighters or where the three were headed. School officials didn't respond to requests for comment.
Zelienople has one of hundreds of junior firefighter programs nationwide, said Kimberly Ettinger, spokeswoman for the National Volunteer Fire Council. Bucci and Lunsford, as well as their classmate Matthew, became firefighters after joining the junior program.
Junior firefighters generally help with fundraising and non-emergency tasks at fire scenes — like serving refreshments and cleaning up after the fact — and also participate in training, so they're prepared to become firefighters when they turn 18, Ettinger said.
"Definitely, with the volunteer services, the culture of it, it really is like a family and people are really connected to it," Ettinger said.
"The volunteer service has such a strongly rooted history in our nation," she said. "A lot of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a volunteer firefighter."
Matthew said the loss of his classmates and fellow firefighters will be a hard thing to overcome.
"I'm not going to lie," he said. "It's a hard thing, but we're all going to get through."