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.

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.

The incident dramatically illustrates the growing debate over immigration policies in the United States and the controversy over whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to have state driver's licenses while living in California. It also unleashed a renewed local awareness over the issue of firefighter safety, an awareness that could lead to new local policies.

During emotional testimony earlier this month, Cunha's family and others who loved him said they are bitter the driver of the car that struck him was an undocumented immigrant without a license.

"There was a clear chain of actions, a pattern of disregard for this country, a pattern of disregard for the law and a pattern of disregard for life," said Marrielle Krause-Lucido, Cunha's sister-in-law. "She is an illegal alien and we need to know that they're here and they understand our laws."

To qualify for a license, drivers must prove they are aware of the rules of the road, Krause-Lucido said.

By coming to the United States illegally and by driving without a license, Zarco showed "complete disregard for the laws of the country," said Sal Lucido, Cunha's cousin and adopted brother. "Her actions are inexcusable."

In response, Zarco's attorney contends that a California Highway Patrol officer's failure to secure the roadway while firefighters were trying to quell the blaze was the primary factor leading to the accident.

But the attorney, Eugene Martinez of Salinas, also noted that recent efforts to educate and license illegal immigrants have failed in California.

"Ms. Zarco, an undocumented worker, would have loved the opportunity to take the training and tests to get a driver's license, but a law that would have allowed her to do so was repealed in Sacramento in order to deter terrorists from getting driver's licenses in California," Martinez said in court documents filed last week.

The arguments in the hot-button issue of licenses for immigrants run both ways.

Like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who repealed a law last year that would have given licenses to illegal immigrants, many Californians believe that people who have come to the United States illegally should not be extended the same opportunities and services available to citizens.

A Field Poll released this month shows that 62 percent of Californians surveyed oppose legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses.

But activists argue that illegal immigrants will continue to drive because they need to get to work and that providing licenses will ensure that at least some of them will have a working knowledge of traffic laws.

In the contentious debate over driver's licenses, Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, has been the champion for undocumented immigrants.

Cedillo is sponsoring legislation that would allow people living in Monterey County without proper documentation to apply for licenses. Cedillo argues that the roads would be safer if at least some of the estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants were trained and insured.

In Monterey County, up to 50,000 undocumented workers show up every spring for the agriculture season. That figure does not include an unknown number of illegal immigrants who live in the county full time.

Though they are here illegally, undocumented workers are key to California businesses that rely on low-paid workers, according to Cedillo and his supporters. Local police agencies are charged with the responsibility of enforcing federal immigration laws, but chasing down illegals is a relatively low priority in most jurisdictions, which are not reimbursed by the federal government to enforce those laws.

The reality, Cedillo argues, is that until immigration laws are enforced, undocumented workers still need to get to their jobs and they will continue to drive. Providing them with driver's licenses will at least guarantee the immigrants have a knowledge of the law and will allow them to obtain car insurance.

But Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, said there is no guarantee undocumented workers would bother to obtain licenses, even if they are available. If they are here illegally and working low-paid jobs, Spence said, why would they go through the time and expense to get licenses and insurance?

What's more, the licensing issue would be moot if lawmen in California enforced federal immigration laws, he said.

"What it boils down to is that (Zarco) should not have been in California in the first place," Spence said.

Spence's organization earlier this year attempted to qualify a statewide initiative for the November ballot that would have asked voters to support a law denying immigrants driver's licenses and other government benefits. The initiative died because the organization was unable to collect enough signatures.

"The real issue is that driver's licenses reward illegal aliens... and create a magnet to have more illegal aliens come here," Spence said. "Citizens who are here legally bear the cost of those services."

The California Republican Assembly, a 70-year-old group not affiliated with the state Assembly, promotes strong enforcement of immigration laws, saying that local lawmen should go after illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them.

"Illegal immigrants put pressure on the lowest scale and employers exploit that," Spence said. "Cheap labor stifles innovation to use technology and other methods that can make operations more efficient. Cheap labor is a crutch to business."

After her car struck Cunha, Zarco drove on. Her attorney said she was confused, panicked, unaware of what was happening.

A few minutes after the accident, Zarco pulled her vehicle off the highway at the Soledad Prison exit. She stopped the car and sat for at least 15 minutes. The impact of the accident had shattered her windshield and pieces of Cunha's "turnout" jacket were wedged in the cracks. Zarco then made a decision that ultimately led to her prison term: She started to drive home instead of returning to the scene of the accident.

After her arrest, she told investigators she wasn't sure what happened, but that she was scared. She felt the impact and saw her broken windshield, but she told investigators she thought she had struck a highway cone.

Martinez, Zarco's attorney, described his client as an uneducated and unsophisticated woman who was in a state of shock after her car struck Cunha.

Martinez also argued that, because of conditions on the roadway on the day of the accident, even a licensed and trained driver could have been involved in the accident. He noted that Zarco had been driving in California for about seven years without receiving so much as a traffic citation.

In Zarco's defense, Martinez found other drivers who encountered the scene off the side of Highway 101 on the late afternoon of March 13, 2004. They say they were also confused by what they encountered. The CHP officer was off the side of the road, but she was not trying to slow traffic. The lane nearest to the burning vehicle was still open.

The other motorists say the smoke from the fire suddenly intensified, the wind shifted. They were suddenly enveloped by the smoke and could feel the blast of hot air. One of those motorists, a nurse from the San Francisco Bay Area, testified last week that she panicked and was afraid she would strike the firetruck.

She felt her vehicle jump as she ran over a fire hose. But while she was trying to slow down, a firefighter suddenly appeared through the smoke, to her right, and pounded on her hood, motioning her to move along.

"I was just panicky," said the nurse, Anquanetta McCall. "I could have been killed. I was terrified."

Deputy District Attorney Bob Burlison concluded that the accident was the result of "a complex set of circumstances" and the scene was one of confusion.

In the end, Judge Terrance Duncan imposed a two-year prison sentence on Zarco. The death was accidental, he said, but the judge also told Zarco on Wednesday that fleeing the scene was "despicable."

Coincidentally, while Zarco was being sentenced Wednesday in one Salinas courtroom, a woman in the courtroom next door was sentenced to 270 days in jail for felony drunken driving following an incident involving emergency personnel in Monterey last July.

In that case, 24-year-old Christy Miller drove through a barricade at the Lighthouse Avenue tunnel, clipped a city worker and caused an electrical saw to strike another city worker in the leg. She also nearly struck several firefighters who were standing by, according to court records.

The city crew and emergency personnel had barricaded the tunnel to clean up an accident that occurred earlier in the day, an accident that was determined to be caused by a drunken driver.

The protection of firefighters who are doing their jobs along streets and highways has long been an issue.

"The Cunha case is not an isolated incident," said Andrew McLaughlin, who is assigned to one of two Salinas fire units that respond to problems on Highway 101. McLaughlin is president of the Salinas Firefighters Association, which has recently become more active in firefighter safety issues.

After the Cunha accident, fire administrators joined with ambulance personnel and law enforcement officials to form a task force in an effort to establish guidelines for emergency personnel who respond to incidents on roadways.

Last month firefighters from throughout the county attended a course on highway safety, featuring a group of firefighters from Pennsylvania who explained new protocols in that state.

"We're looking at a variety of safety features," said McLaughlin, who is president of the Salinas Firefighters Association. "We've been getting by for years depending on the common sense of drivers. For instance, when they encounter smoke on the road, we've got to assume they know they are coming into unsafe conditions and they will slow down.

"We're staying on this task. We want to have safer guidelines for us, but we also want drivers to know that they've got to be aware of situations on the roadway. And we're going to be reviewing this case to see what we can do in Sacramento to strengthen laws that will protect us."

Casillas said he believes the task force of emergency personnel will also improve safety for firefighters.

"The problem, of course, is that every situation we encounter is different," said Casillas. "But we think it's important to establish the protocols."

Soon after Zarco was arrested, prosecutors charged her with involuntary manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident, both felonies. She was also charged with driving without a license.

Because of the confusion at the scene of the accident, prosecutors dismissed the manslaughter charge against Zarco. The woman pleaded no contest to the two other charges.

She has been in Monterey County Jail since her arrest. When Kathy Foxworthy, a probation officer, showed up in jail last month to interview Zarco, she noted that Zarco exhibited obvious symptoms of depression. The following day a doctor examined Zarco and prescribed anti-depressants.

Martinez said the accident has devastated Zarco. Knowing that she has killed someone has overwhelmed her. "Mrs. Zarco is not an uncaring, unloving person," he said.

Her children, ages 8 and 10, are living with their elderly aunt and uncle in Salinas. In letters sent to the judge, the 10-year-old, Bella, said she misses her mother, who spent her Sundays with the children on excursions to Chuck E. Cheese or to the park.

After Zarco serves her sentence, she will be deported back to Mexico. Her prison term will likely expire within the year because she has already spent a year in jail and been credited with almost 180 days for good behavior.

Meanwhile, Cunha's family still grieves.

Pat Lucido, who accepted little Mario into her household as HIS guardian almost 30 years ago, speaks of her nephew as though he had been her own son.

His smile could "light up a room," she said last week. The entire family was proud of the way he organized and led his life. He thriftily saved his money to buy his home.

He was constantly falling in love, but was clear-headed enough to wait for the right woman, Pat Lucido said. He was about to take the plunge, asking Veronica Sanchez to marry him several months prior to his death. They were to be married in two months.

Casillas, the Soledad fire chief who considers Cunha one of his closest friends, said he knows Zarco did not intend to kill Cunha.

He said he holds no personal animosity against Zarco, though he and other firefighters believe Zarco received a light sentence. She could have been sent to prison for four years.

During the sentencing hearing for Zarco, Casillas told the judge he believes she should be penalized with prison time for leaving the scene of an accident and for driving without a license.

"Accidents happen," he said. "The one thing I know for sure is that Mario was doing what he loved when it happened. He died an honorable death."

Service planned today A memorial vigil to celebrate Mario Cunha's life will be at 4 p.m. today at the Soledad fire station, 525 Monterey St. The event is planned as a celebration of Mario's life, said Soledad Fire Chief Jesse Casillas. A memorial plaque also will be dedicated in Cunha's honor. The vigil is sponsored by the Soledad Firefighters Association.