California Firefighter Mourned a Year Later

Mario Cunha first met Jesse Casillas while they were showing off their customized Honda Civics at local car shows almost 15 years ago.

Mario Cunha first met Jesse Casillas while they were showing off their customized Honda Civics at local car shows almost 15 years ago.

As they became friends, they discovered they had something other than cars in common. They both wanted to be firefighters.

Eventually, both Cunha and Casillas ended up in Soledad, working at the local firehouse. Casillas is now the chief of the Soledad Fire Department. Cunha worked as a delivery truck driver for Foster Farms, but spent his spare time at the firehouse as a "paid call staff."

He put in long hours, working 12-hour shifts for a $30 stipend. "He did it because he had an admiration for the profession," Casillas said.

Cunha's interest can be linked to his uncle and legal guardian, Ray Lucido. Cunha came to live with Pat and Ray Lucido after Cunha's mother died when he was 9. Ray Lucido was a volunteer for the Carmel Valley Fire Protection District and Cunha spent a lot of time at the firehouse, climbing over the trucks and hanging around with firefighters.

More important, the Lucido family offered him a steady home he never knew as a young child.

"With the cards he was dealt as a child, he pulled through it better than anyone I've ever known," said Casillas.

Cunha, 32, had purchased his own home in Soledad. He was engaged to a woman he met at a firehouse Christmas party in 2003. And he was preparing to attend fire academy at Monterey Peninsula College this year.

After the academy, Cunha planned to find work as a full-time firefighter, preferably in Soledad, where plans are afoot to expand the full-time staff.

"He had so much going for him," Casillas said.

Cunha was working one of his 12-hour volunteer shifts on March 13, 2004, when a 911 dispatcher notified him that a vehicle was burning on the shoulder of Highway 10 near Gloria-Camphora Road. The call came shortly before 5 p.m.

At about the time Cunha was driving the Soledad firetruck to the scene of the vehicle fire, Oreina Alvarez Zarco climbed into her car after working a 10-hour shift in a Salinas Valley cauliflower field. She would be returning to Salinas and to her two children.

Being a Saturday afternoon, the highway was not jammed with commuters and large agricultural trucks, as it usually is during rush hour on a weekday.

The car she was driving belonged to her uncle. Zarco has neither a driver's license nor insurance.

Zarco, 29, is from Michoacan, Mexico, where she grew up in poverty. She started working the fields in Mexico during her early teens, after finishing the sixth grade. She eventually immigrated to the United States without legal documents seven years ago.

When she arrived in the Salinas Valley, she "purchased" a Social Security number and went to work for Quality Farm Labor, a Gonzales firm that provides farmworkers on contract to local farmers. She became the sole breadwinner when her common-law husband, Alex Ambriz, was deported in 2003 after he was arrested for alleged drug and alcohol offenses.

In 2003 Zarco earned $17,413 with Quality Farm Labor.

As she drove south on Highway 101, she saw a cloud of smoke billowing from what appeared to be a burning vehicle on the side of the road. As she approached, she saw a California Highway Patrol unit parked on the side of the road, but the patrolwoman was chatting with someone and neither lane of traffic was closed.

Confused, Zarco slowed and her vehicle cut through the smoke.

The vastly different lives of Cunha and Zarco collided tragically one year ago today, when the car Zarco was driving struck Cunha while he and other Soledad firefighters battled the vehicle fire.

The impact propelled Cunha about 50 feet in the air. Cunha landed on top of the firetruck, but then slid off the top and fell to the other side. By the time Casillas arrived on the scene several minutes later, Cunha was dead.

Zarco pleaded no contest to a felony charge of hit-and-run and a misdemeanor charge of driving without a license. She was sentenced to two years in state prison Wednesday.

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