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Firefighter's death is blamed on faulty truck

A Riverside prosecutor absolves the engine's driver for skidding off road during rainstorm.

July 26, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

A vehicular manslaughter charge was abruptly dropped Wednesday against a firefighter accused of negligence in an accident that killed a co-worker after prosecutors reviewed defense team findings that the fire engine's design and lax maintenance caused the crash.

The Riverside County district attorney's office had faced intense pressure from a firefighters union to drop its case against Michael Arizaga, the first California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighter to be charged in an on-duty accident. A trial was set for this week.

"This was a tragedy two years ago, and it would have been a double tragedy if Mike had to stand trial for it," said Michael Schwartz, an attorney for Arizaga.

The August 2005 accident happened during a heavy rainstorm as Arizaga was driving two crew members to a flooded home in Beaumont.

Because of problems with his usual truck, Arizaga was driving a backup engine he had never used before. When he rounded a curve onto Interstate 10, the truck fishtailed and careened across three lanes of traffic.

The engine struck a concrete drainage dike and two trees as it slid down an embankment -- throwing Arizaga through the windshield and ejecting firefighter Christopher Kanton.

"It was basically hell on Earth," said Capt. Danny Faulkner, whose engine was the first to arrive after the crash.

California Highway Patrol investigators determined that the crash was caused by Arizaga's failure to disengage a secondary braking system that must be turned off in snow and rain because it can slow the engine too quickly.

Investigators also faulted Arizaga for driving 45 mph at the time of the accident, which they said was an "unsafe speed for the conditions," and for failing to make sure Kanton was wearing a seat belt.

But defense lawyers found a history of problems with the 1987 Spartan fire engine. Also, about 10 firefighters -- including at least one who had driven that same truck -- were willing to testify about similar fishtailing incidents in that model.

An expert witness, a professor emeritus of physics at Cal State Northridge, was to testify that the weight distribution of the truck was uneven -- making it tail-heavy and prone to skids. Arizaga's attorneys also found that the truck's frame was bent from a previous accident, and that it had mismatched tires on the rear.

CHP investigators concurred that the truck's weight distribution contributed to the crash, said Assistant Dist. Atty. Sara Danville. She had no comment on whether the tires and bent frame played roles in the crash.

"Anyone driving that truck that day in those conditions at that speed, or even at a lower speed, the same thing could have happened," she said. "Had we known that, we would not have filed."

Forestry department spokesman Mike Jarvis declined to comment, saying an internal agency investigation is ongoing. Kanton's family and a spokeswoman for Spartan Motors Inc. could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Arizaga, 48, said he was ecstatic about the dismissal.

"I didn't think anything like this would come about," said Arizaga, who has been on paid leave for the past year. "We're still mourning the death of Chris Kanton, who in my eyes is still a hero.... It has taken a toll on me."


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