Elijah Lunsford was a jokester.
Described by his friend, Sean Sokolowski, as a class clown and the guy who always had a smile on his face, the 18-year-old volunteer with the Zelienople Fire Department had dreams of one day becoming a flight medic with the U.S. Air Force.
“He always was joking around,” Sokolowski said. “We were always messing around with him.”
He misses him like crazy.
“I don’t even really remember how we met,” Sokolowski said. “We just hit it off and became really close friends.”
Along with fellow Zelienople firefighter Sam Bucci and Trevor Barkley, Lunsford drowned last January after the sport utility vehicle in which they were riding went out of control and rolled upside down into a icy pond near the Zelienople-Harmony Sportsmen’s club.
All three boys were Seneca Valley High School seniors. Their deaths a year ago Thursday were ruled accidents.
The Zelienople Fire Department, Cranberry Township Fire Company and other volunteer fire departments from around the area will hold a memorial ceremony at 7 p.m. tonight at St. Gregory Church in Zelienople. The event is titled, “A Celebration of Life.”
“It’s a group gathering for everyone to come together and try to feel better,” Sokolowski said.
Rather than focus on the crash, he said, the gathering will aim to help those who attend remember the teens' lives. Poster-sized photographs of all three teens will be displayed inside the church. In front of each picture will be their firefighter gear.
Pastor Bob Keplinger, longtime chaplain for the Zelienople Fire Department, said he hopes the boys’ parents will bring other reminders of their loved ones.
“The boys were involved in much more than just the fire department,” he said. “We wanted to do a celebration and focus on the joy they gave their family and friends and the contributions they made to the community.”
A firefighter with the Cranberry company, Sokolowski, 19, helped organize the event with his friend, Spencer Matthew, a 19-year-old firefighter with the Zelienople department.
Both teens were tight with Lunsford. Sokolowski said they influenced him to join the fire department, first as a junior firefighter and then a full-fledged volunteer.
“He always saw us going to the fire calls and we just kind of pushed him to join, and then he got involved,” Sokolowski said.
Matthew said Lunsford loved all aspects of being a fireman.
“I just feel that it was a good accomplishment on our part,” he said. “Since the day we got him to join, he loved it.”
Matthew also was good friends with Bucci.
“I grew up with Sam,” he said. “We started playing baseball together at 5 or 6 years old. I met Elijah through Sean because they were best friends.”
Wednesday’s ceremony will honor the boys’ service to the fire department. Although Barkley was not an official volunteer, Zelienople made him an honorary firefighter.
Sokolowski said the Cranberry fire department’s honor guard will open the ceremony with two firefighters acting as axe holders. Other volunteers will carry an American flag, a firefighter’s flag and a state flag as a firefighter calls out commands.
Keplinger, who presided over Lunsford’s funeral, will pray and read scriptures before inviting three of the boys' friends -- Matthew, Kevin Jackson and Jake Reeb -- to speak. After that, the floor will open for remarks from the boys’ families.
Sokolowski said he expects the church to be packed. On an event page through Facebook alone, he said, more than a thousand people have been invited to the service.
Fire trucks will be welcome at the event, he said, and there will be designated spots for parking.
Once the ceremony concludes, attendees are invited to attend a reception at the church with refreshments provided by auxiliary members of the Zelienople Fire Department.
A year after the crash, Zelienople firefighters still keep lockers in their fire hall draped in black in memory of Lunsford and Bucci. Inside are their empty boots and unworn gear.
Last year, the fire department also established a scholarship fund with Butler County Community College to honor the three boys. The $30,000 raised by the department established three permanent scholarships in the names of each teen.
“We wanted to keep their names going forever,” Matthew said.