Eric Staub believes the last 30 minutes Walter Wagaman was conscious are a perfect snapshot of his entire life.
Staub, Wagaman and other members of the Buchanan Valley Fire Department were at the Bendersville Fire Department so its volunteers could work their annual carnival. Staub’s 7-year-old son, Henry, and Wagaman engaged in an “epic battle” with toy swords. Henry’s sword broke and before Staub could tell his son they would fix it the next morning, Wagaman sprang into action.
“He had these sausage links for fingers, he was the hardest worker I have ever seen in my life. He was standing there fumbling with this little piece of yarn to fix this 35 cent balloon pop toy for my son. He fixed it and they fought more and more,” Staub said.
When the mock war was over, Henry wanted to have his face painted. He and his father hugged Wagaman and said goodbye. Only about three strokes of paint were on Henry’s face before emergency tones sounded to alert volunteer responders of a vehicle crash.
“Even in all of that chaos, it was like the world stood still. He stopped, looked right at Henry and I and did that stupid little wink and took off running for the engine,” Staub said.
Minutes later, the assistant chief was ejected from the fire engine. He died 12 days later in York Hospital.
Wagaman’s wife, Vickie Wagaman, said her husband died doing what he loved. He lived for the next fire call because he knew it would give him the opportunity to help others.
“He was a wonderful man. He would stop at the drop of a hat and do anything he could possibly do for anybody,” Vickie Wagaman said. “He wanted the next run. He loved getting back from a call, backing in, starting cleanup and having the tones drop again. He would be right back out the door, no questions asked.”
Walter Wagaman began serving the Buchanan Valley Fire Department at age 14. He would ride his bike to the station to make a call.
“He loved our slogan of ‘Neighbors helping neighbors,’” Vickie Wagaman said.
He always put others first, she said, recalling a time when Walter Wagaman’s truck crashed while he was responding to a call.
“He got out of his truck and continued running to the fire house. Left his truck there and everything, flipped on its side,” Vickie Wagaman said.
Walter Wagaman also loved to cook at fire department fundraisers. Buchanan Valley has a family-friendly environment and Walter Wagaman would make sure children were having a great time.
Vickie Wagaman recalled her husband often picked on young Landon Eiker for taking chicken legs from the kitchen. To show his appreciation for allowing the antics, Eiker gave Walter Wagaman a chicken hat.
“He would wear his chicken hat and dance around in the kitchen while cooking chicken,” Vickie Wagaman said.
“Not just dance around, dance around like a chicken,” Fire Department President Timothy Baldwin said.
A video on Eric’s phone shows Walter Wagaman grilling sausages, dancing and singing the country song “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas.”
“It’s like 80 degrees, there’s a 300 degree grill and he’s singing and dancing,” Baldwin said.
Walter Wagaman also enjoyed working with younger firefighters.
“He was one of the most awkward mentors I ever had in my life,” Staub said. “He would let you run your path, but he would never let you fail. He would let you get up to the point where you are about to figure out you are wrong and he would step in and say ‘this is where you screwed up.’
Hundreds gathered at Gettysburg Area High School Sunday to celebrate Wagaman’s life. Vickie Wagaman, Staub and Baldwin said the outpouring of support that day and every day since the accident was an incredible tribute to a man who lived to help others.