Founder of Virigina Fire Department Hangs up Helmet

He recalls more than a half century of fire, wrecks and floods as well as being injured.

ELLISTON, Va. -- Pug Wells remembers the one time he got seriously hurt during more than half a century of racing to fires, floods and wrecks.

At least he remembers most of what happened.

It was about four years ago and the longtime chief of the Elliston Volunteer Fire Department was in his mid-70s. There had been a call that a teenage girl had been found unresponsive at the foot of a steep slope along the bank of the North Fork of the Roanoke River.

Wells knew the spot, near a dam built to reroute the river for the construction of Interstate 81, and he was the first rescuer on the scene. The girl's grandmother met him and pointed to a path. He turned -- and stepped into empty space, off the edge of the drop.

For a frenzied moment, Wells slid, clawing at dirt and brambles, breaking finger-nails, losing his glasses and his wristwatch. Then the slope turned vertical and Wells, skidding feet-first on his stomach, shot over the 20-foot drop. He landed hard on rocks a few feet from the water.

He could feel swelling above his forehead. He could hear the alarmed radio chatter as other emergency workers drew near. Soon he was being tied to a backboard and hoisted back up the hill.

"Who told them I fell?" he asked.

"I did," answered the grandmother. "I took your radio."

"Uh oh," Wells recalls thinking. He hadn't noticed.

Wells had sustained a concussion and wrenched his back. But he was soon back at the firehouse. For a few months, his wife drove him to emergency calls. Then, as the effects of the fall slowly passed, Wells returned to driving fire engines, just as he had for decades.

Now 79 and the last active charter member of the Elliston department, Wells recently took a leap nearly as precipitous as his 2007 plunge. He quietly stepped down from 48 years as Elliston's fire chief, passing the reins to Joe Rakes on Jan. 1.

"It's time to let others learn the process," Wells said Wednesday.

But he has no plans to retire. Wells remains a firefighter. He was out answering rescue calls this week.

"He's sort of the Energizer Bunny," joked Neal Turner, Montgomery County's emergency services coordinator and a friend of Wells' for more than three decades.

Speaking more seriously, Turner said Wells had put his life into community service.

Fifty-five years of racing to calamity has worn a grid of eastern Montgomery County's roads into Pug Wells' brain,

He casually reels off house addresses along back roads, describes the structures and terrain, then adds names and histories -- accounts of both disasters and of regular lives, of residents and of the roads themselves, which have shifted from numbers to names to newer names in the decades that Wells has piloted emergency vehicles along them.

A lifelong resident of Lafayette -- he pronounces it with the native lilt that sounds something like la-FIT -- Wells said he was surprised at how much more there was to learn about the region's geography once he began traveling it with fire trucks.

The Elliston department's origins were in an April 1957 meeting of eastern Montgomery businessmen, and in the horrible fires that had ravaged homes and businesses. A December 1954 blaze had burned the Big Spring Mill "to the basement," Bill Long, another of the founding members, remembered this week.

The area's fire protection came from Christiansburg or Salem, both too far for effective assistance much of the time.

Long's father, who owned the mill then, and Wells' boss at Gardner's general store in Lafayette were among the group that planned the department. Wells said he heard about the meeting and signed up the next morning for what was initially called the Alleghany District VFD.

The department's first structure fire came in May in Lafayette, Wells said. Most of the house was destroyed as firefighters struggled to haul water from the river.

The department's first pumper was a 1941 vehicle assembled in Roanoke in defiance of a wartime government call to turn over heavy truck chassis for military use, Wells said. By 1957, Blacksburg's fire department was retiring the vehicle, and the county gave it to the new Elliston department.

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