GUSTINE - West Side residents joined members of a mourning firefighting brotherhood last Tuesday night to honor Cal Fire Captain Paul Rotondaro in a candlelight vigil at the Gustine fire station.
Rotondaro, 36, who for the past two and a half years was assigned to the Gustine station which Merced County shares with local volunteers, died Oct. 2 in a traffic accident near the Gustine Municipal Airport.
On Tuesday, in front of the Merced County Engine 74 which Rotondaro staffed and flanked by a photo of the Rotondaro family and a stand bearing his turnout coat and helmet, a series of speakers stepped forward to pay tribute.
Several shared memories and stories of the easy-going Rotondaro, who was adopted by Gustine firefighters as one of their own - and vice versa.
“We would like to thank Paul’s wife Jenny and his family for letting Gustine share our time with Paul over the last two and a half years,” Gustine Fire Chief Pat Borrelli said. “All of us here in Gustine have fond memories of Paul.”
Mike Martin, second assistant chief of the Gustine Volunteer Fire Department, remembered Rotondaro as being easy to work with but candid.
“He would always just tell you how it was, and he was upfront with you, which we all appreciated. If Paul had any constructive criticism, he would tell you up front and then later laugh about it,” Martin said.
Rotondaro accomplished a number of projects during his time in Gustine, he added.
Martin said Rotondaro played an instrumental role in recently helping the city land a grant for the purchase of a new fire truck, working countless hours to help complete part of the application and assisting a consultant hired as a grant writer.
“This would not have been possible without Paul’s help and leadership,” Martin said.
A memorial tribute to Rotondaro will be on the door of the new fire engine, Borrelli added.
Rotondaro’s accomplishments also included persuading Tesla to donate two new vehicles to use in extrication training held recently.
“Paul was somewhat speechless that they were giving him two expensive cars for free,” Martin recalled.
He said Rotondaro made two trips to Fremont the following day to pick up the vehicles, even though he was supposed to be off duty.
Rotondaro also conducted the training with new extrication equipment, Martin said, even though he was supposed to be off that day as well.
“It was one of the best trainings we have had,” Martin reflected. “That is the kind of dedication that Paul had to this department and to the county.”
Cal Fire Division Chief Jeremy Rahn said Rotondaro was involved in a wide variety of specialized programs and was the information technology person for the Cal Fire unit.
“He had his fingers in about everything, helping us in many ways,” Rahn stated. “I can’t express how much we are going to miss Paul. He was a go-to guy whenever we needed anything.”
Rotondaro, he added, “is never going to be forgotten.”
Rotondaro’s wife Jennifer stepped forward to speak about her husband and his love of Gustine.
“All of you, especially Pat (Borrelli) and Bart (Garcia) embraced us as a family,” she reflected. “Paul loved this town. He loved your community and he loved being here at work with you guys.
“My family and I really appreciate the outpouring of support from your community. We love your community as much as you loved our Paul,” Jennifer Rotondaro added.
Ultimately, Borrelli told those gathered, Rotondaro leaves a lasting legacy in the Gustine department.
“We have a saying that once you have served at Gustine fire station you are part of the family,” he remarked. “Paul will always be part of our family, in our hearts and in our thoughts. Thank you, Paul, for all that you gave us.”
Mayor Pat Nagy brought the vigil to a close with his own tribute.
“He was a hero. He is a hero,” Nagy said. “He lives on in our hearts.”
A memorial service for Rotondaro, a Merced resident, was held Thursday at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Merced, following a traditional procession through the city.
The Merced Sun-Star reported that nearly 1,000 people, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, attended the services, which included an honor guard, badge presentation, flag presentation, bell-ringing, music detail and traditional firefighter’s last alarm.