Founder of Virigina Fire Department Hangs up Helmet

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.

With no building of its own, the department garaged the truck at Bryant Funeral Home in Elliston. Residents would call there to report fires.

Long, working near the funeral home at the rebuilt Big Spring Mill, said he was often the driver. He and Wells recalled that in the days before the department had radios, whoever was on the truck would leave a flag at turns -- or even pour out lime, Wells said -- to steer later arrivals toward the blaze.

Danny Hall, another founding department member, laughed about the makeshift arrangements. "It was effective at that time," he said.

Continuing, Hall said, "We started out with nothing. And I'm not sure how it was acquired, but we got some military surplus equipment. ... I think the first items we got were pants."

The military gear was lined with rubber and would heat up enough to burn its wearer.

"We quickly learned we were doing more harm than good to ourselves," Hall said.

The fire hoses of that era were equipped with straight-tip nozzles, Hall and Wells remembered. "If you were brave enough, you'd try to stick your hand out there and break up the stream to create a little more of a spray pattern," Hall said.

Gradually, though, the department gained training and equipment. Today, Elliston's firehouse is crowded with trucks, swift-water rescue boats and hazardous materials gear -- nearly all of it gained during Wells' years at the helm.

"Pug's been a good chief. He's pushed the department," Long said.

Wells said he told his firefighters they should put their families first, then their jobs, then finally the department.

"Of course, I'm not sure all of them followed that," he said, smiling.

Asked if his own family -- his wife, Mary Lee, and their four children -- were bothered by the all-hours calls and the hazards of his work, Wells said they had always supported him. But he agreed that firefighters' relatives put up with a lot.

"You leave a lot of meals sitting on the table," he said.

Wells' thoughts of fire department work started early. "As a youngster, I saw two houses burn in Lafayette. I was scared of fire," he said.

In high school, Wells was part of the Keep Virginia Green crews that fought forest fires. He recalled being awestruck by the engines and equipment.

In his years as chief, Wells said, he learned the value of looking ahead. A member of the Montgomery County Planning Commission for 30 years, Wells said he keeps up with new developments and their implications for fire protection.

One example: Norfolk Southern's plans for an intermodal rail yard in Elliston prompted Wells to call firefighters in Front Royal, where a similar facility has existed for years, so he could start researching fire coverage of such yards.

Similarly, Wells' seat on the planning commission gave him advance notice of plans to build a three-story hotel at Interstate 81's Exit 128. A ladder truck that would let firefighters battle a third-story blaze likely would cost between $700,000 and $1million. And Elliston doesn't have that equipment or the money to buy it, Wells said.

The planned hotel will be the first of its kind near Elliston, and for now, the fire department will continue to rely on mutual aid agreements with Roanoke County, which does have a ladder truck, Wells said.

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Few people know Pug Wells by his birth name, Malvin.

Wells said he was still a baby when his father gave him the nickname Pug. The reasons have been lost to time.

"But it stuck," Wells said with a laugh. "People say, 'I looked in the phone book and couldn't find you.'"

For most of his life, the easiest way to find Wells has been at fire calls or other department events. Always an unpaid volunteer, Wells said he plans continue answering calls even as a fresh round of honors descends on him.

An April 28 open house is being planned at the Elliston fire department, and organizers hope to gather the remaining charter members for recognition. Montgomery County supervisors congratulated Wells on his service last month.

Wells said the best moments of his decades as a firefighter have been observing the department's growth. But his greatest enjoyment has come from a more basic source, he said.

"Being able to help people."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service