THREE FORKS, Mont. (AP) — A tight band of firefighters in a small Montana town was left reeling after their new chief and five members of a family died in a horrific crash between a fire engine and a pickup truck along a rural highway.
The cause of the fiery Thursday night collision about 10 miles southeast of Helena remained under investigation.
There were no survivors, and few details were immediately known about the family members killed in the pickup truck. Authorities on Friday identified them as a Helena couple and their three young children.
Todd Rummel, chief of the Three Forks Fire Department, was alone in the fire engine. It had been repaired in Helena, and he was driving it back to Three Forks, a town of about 2,000 people at the headwaters of the Missouri River.
Grief-stricken fellow firefighters and family members recalled the 44-year-old as the consummate volunteer firefighter, dedicated to a life of service that began when he was just 14 and joined the junior fire brigade in his hometown of Quakertown in eastern Pennsylvania.
“This fire department was more than a business. It was a family,” firefighter Brad Eastty said. “Todd was like a brother. To some folks in the fire department, he was like a father.”
At 18, after spending several years cleaning hoses and doing odd jobs around his father’s firehouse in Haycock Township, Pennsylvania, Rummel started fighting fires, helping battle hundreds of blazes over the next several decades, said his father, Allen.
Allen Rummel was also a volunteer firefighter and recalled leaving his infant son at the fire station to be looked after by others while he went to fight fires.
Jim Young, a firefighter in Milford Township, Pennsylvania, where Todd Rummel also volunteered, recalled Todd Rummel acting as a mentor for new members of the crew.
When Rummel moved to Three Forks in 2006 after getting divorced, he brought his commitment to firefighting with him, said his father and fellow firefighters. Last month, he was named fire chief.
Rummel had a girlfriend and worked as an auto mechanic, but “he lived and breathed the Three Forks fire company,” Allen Rummel said. “He was living his dream.”
Firefighters learned of the crash overnight Thursday and gathered at the firehouse Friday to talk through their shock and to welcome residents who stopped by to share a few words about their fallen chief.
Someone placed a small flower memorial at the site of the crash, which had been completely cleared of wreckage except for the skid marks that veered sharply from the highway and led to a ditch blackened by fire.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office sent the victims to the state crime lab for identification and to determine the cause of death, Montana Highway Patrol Capt. Gary Becker said.
It will take some time to reconstruct what happened, he said.
A memorial service for Todd Rummel was set for June 25.