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Pinellas firefighter dies 10 days after motorcycle crash

SEMINOLE — James G. Fehl traveled the country fighting fires.

A wildland specialist, he battled massive blazes in Alaska. Rappelled out of helicopters in the Pacific Northwest. Worked 20-hour days in Nevada in conditions so dry he couldn't sweat, with sandstorms so furious he couldn't see.

For the past decade, he focused on fighting fires closer to home with the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District.

His devotion to firefighting came to a tragic end Wednesday, 10 days after he was critically injured when his motorcycle collided with a car the day after his 40th birthday.

"James didn't know the word 'no' and didn't know the word 'can't,'" said Fire Chief Robert Polk. "He's someone who would do anything for anyone. He was always there. He was one of the go-to guys."

A 1996 Pontiac Sunfire driven by 20-year-old Shane M. Ross* was turning east from the parking lot of a strip shopping center at 9685 Bay Pines Blvd. when Fehl's 1987 Honda motorcycle collided with the car, deputies said.

Fehl, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown from his bike, deputies said.

No charges have been filed but an investigation is still in progress.

Polk said Fehl loved what he did and made everyone want to be around him.

He was generous with his time and had a great sense of humor, friends said. Colleagues affectionately remembered how he would walk into a room and greet everybody with, "Hey, you crazy cats."

"You never really knew what exactly would come out of his mouth, but it would be something that cheered people up and made them laugh," Polk said.

The Rev. Robert Wagenseil, who knew Fehl for 13 years, agreed.

"That was probably his great gift to the department — keep people smiling and focused. That's just what made him so loved," he said.

Fehl joined Pinellas Suncoast in 2002 but began as a volunteer firefighter years earlier as a student at Seminole High. He helped search for shuttle parts in Texas after the Columbia exploded and cleared roads after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992.

Ginger Lyle, an administrative assistant with the fire department, remembered how good he was with children and the elderly, how he loved going to schools to teach fire prevention.

"Hey kids," he would shout, "don't you hide under those beds, because we can't find you!"

Cecily Pond-Culbreth, 35, a friend of more than 20 years, said Fehl was great with her 12-year-old son, Noah Logan.

"The bond that him and James had, I can't thank James enough," she said. "I'm eternally grateful to him for turning my son into a young man."

After he got calls to assist the elderly, he often went back to their homes on an off-day to help with carpentry, lawn care — whatever they needed, Lyle said.

"He was a guy of all guys," Lyle said. "He was unbelievable."

His Facebook page drew numerous testimonials, including this from Jennifer Wells: "Jimmy you were one of a kind and will be missed everyday! My prayers are with you and your entire family. Watch over us and help us all to be more like you. You're a true, true HERO!''

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Fehl's motorcycle hit the Pontiac and to provide a first name for Shane Ross.

>>To attend

Funeral services

Services for James G. Fehl will at 11 a.m. Saturday, First Baptist Church, 1900 Gandy Blvd., St. Petersburg. The public is welcome to attend.

Pinellas firefighter dies 10 days after motorcycle crash 11/30/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 1, 2011 1:38pm]
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