GUSTINE - A Cal Fire captain who had been assigned to the Gustine station for the past three years was one of two people killed in a head-on accident Wednesday morning, Oct. 2, on Highway 140 near the Gustine Airport.
Authorities said Fire Captain Paul Rotondaro, 36, of Merced, and David Goddard III, 42, of Stevinson, died in the 7 a.m. crash on Highway 140 east of Santa Fe Grade.
Rotondaro was on duty at the time of the tragedy, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean, and had just left the Gustine station to drive to another station.
Rotondaro took a great interest in the community, and was instrumental in recently helping the Gustine Volunteer Fire Department secure grant funding for the purchase of a new fire engine.
Gustine Fire Chief Pat Borrelli said Rotondaro often took part in training exercises with the Gustine volunteers and worked side-by-side with the volunteers on incidents.
“Paul was really good at training. He knew how to get it across so you would understand it,” Borrelli said. “The guys got along with him great...he was just that type of guy.”
Borrelli said Rotondaro enjoyed being in Gustine and without fail was willing to step forward and help whenever needed.
“Every time I called to ask him to do something it would get done,” he reflected. “He would never say no.”
Most importantly, Borrelli said, Rotondaro was a good fit for the community and the local department.
During a conversation in the wake of the tragedy, he said, a Cal Fire official pointed out that working in Gustine is like working with family.
“Paul had that relationship with all of us,” Borrelli said. “We deal with (tragedy) all the time, but not this close. This one is going to hurt for a long time.”
Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statement regarding Rotondaro’s passing.
“Jennifer and I were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Fire Captain Paul Rotondaro, a man who dedicated his life to protecting his fellow Californians,” the statement read. “His contribution to his community will not be forgotten.”
Rotondaro started his Cal Fire career in 2006 as a seasonal firefighter in the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit (MMU), and was promoted to full-time status in 2011 as a Firefighter II. In 2012, he was promoted to Fire Apparatus Engineer in the MMU and then transferred to the Riverside Unit in 2015.
McClean said Rotondaro was promoted to fire captain in 2016, at which time he was assigned to the Gustine station which Merced County/Cal Fire shares with the Gustine Volunteer Fire Department.
Rotondaro is survived by his wife Jennifer, 13-year-old daughter Kiersten and 16-month-old son Wyatt.
Rotondaro was a dedicated family man known for his sense of humor, loyalty and willingness to help others, a Cal Fire news release stated.
A vigil was held Tuesday evening at the Gustine fire station.
A Mass for Rotondaro will be held today (Thursday, Oct. 10) at 10 a.m. at St. Patrick’s Church, 671 E. Yosemite Ave., Merced.
According to the California Highway Patrol, Rotondaro was eastbound on Highway 140 driving a 1997 Ford Ranger when Goddard, who was driving a 2014 Dodge Ram westbound on SR 140, pulled into the eastbound lane in an attempt to pass another vehicle and the pickup trucks collided head-on.
Both were pronounced dead at the scene.
The driver whom Goddard was attempting to pass, 68-year-old Floriberto Alvares of Atwater, was driving a 1998 Ford Crown Victoria and was able to control the sedan and stopped blocking the westbound lane, the CHP reported. He sustained minor injuries and was not transported, according to the CHP. A passenger in the Ford, Maria Alvares, 68, of Atwater, was not injured.