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.

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.