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Pinellas Park mourns firefighter

He is remembered for the lives he saved working for departments in Florida and most recently, North Carolina.

By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- Former city firefighter Pete Sznerch, who died last weekend in a traffic accident in the Orlando area, was described as a "joyful, bubbly and positive" man who was quick to volunteer his time to his department, community and church.

The fatal accident occurred at 5:50 a.m. Saturday on Interstate 4 near U.S. 192. Sznerch and his family were traveling to Orlando from their home in Graham, N.C., to attend a memorial service for his sister-in-law, who died last month from cancer.

Police said Sznerch, 40, was killed when a drunken driver cut in front of the family's 1998 Chevrolet van and caused Sznerch to lose control. Although Sznerch was wearing a seat belt, the Florida Highway Patrol said he was thrown partly out of the van as it rolled over several times. He died at the scene.

His 13-year-old daughter, Alyshia, died 12 hours later at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children & Women in Orlando. Alyshia played volleyball and basketball and was a cheerleader.

Sznerch's wife, Cathleen, and their 7-year-old son, Nicholas, were in stable condition Tuesday in Orlando-area hospitals. Cathleen suffered a broken arm, a broken leg and apparent internal injuries. She had surgery on Saturday and may face additional surgery, according to Orlando Regional Medical Center spokesman Joe Brown.

Nicholas is also in stable condition at Arnold Palmer Hospital, recovering from two breaks to his collarbone, a broken nose, and numerous lacerations.

Because the mother is being treated in a different hospital on the medical campus and could not be moved, Brown said the hospital has arranged for child psychologists to assist the mother in telling the boy of his father's and sister's deaths by telephone.

The driver of the car that apparently caused the accident left the scene but was arrested by troopers about a half-mile away, authorities said. Diana M. Jimenez, 22, is being held in the Osceola County Jail without bail on charges of DUI/manslaughter.

Lisa Roberson, spokeswoman for the Orange-Osceola County State Attorney's Office, said Tuesday that Jimenez was driving on a suspended license.

"Cathy has asked me to stress one thing about this tragedy," said Chapel Hill Fire Department Deputy Chief Robert Bosworth. "She says she hopes Pete and Alyshia will be used as icons in the fight to stop drunk drivers,"

Bosworth also praised her for allowing the donation of her husband's and daughter's organs. "If you can say that anything good came out of this, it's that seven families will benefit. Sometimes out of death comes life."

He recalled an incident last March when Sznerch was instrumental in saving the life of Chapel Hill-area nurse Anna Graybill:

"Pete was driving to work early one morning when he saw a woman lying in the middle of the interstate. She had been ejected when her car rolled over. Pete stopped and stood between her and the traffic to keep her from being run over. Several other of our firefighters also stopped and helped Pete as he gave her CPR. I understand that an Orlando Coca-Cola truck driver tried to do the same thing for Pete. There is a lot of irony to this story."

The hospital where Graybill worked confirmed Tuesday that she is still recovering from injuries sustained in the accident and is expected to return to work next month. Graybill could not be reached for comment.

Sznerch received a Life-Saving Award from the Chapel Hill fire department.

Bosworth described Sznerch as "the kind of employee you absolutely love." He said Sznerch was always quick to volunteer to take on extra tasks and helped renovate all four of Chapel Hill's fire stations.

"Pete was an excellent carpenter and tradesman. He was a member of the Chapel Hill Preservation Society and worked on our historic buildings. He volunteered at his children's school. He did more than just live on this earth and breathe air. He was emotional, passionate and opinionated and he truly cared."

Sznerch moved to North Carolina three years ago to work with two other former Pinellas Park firefighters, Ron Taitt and Dan Jones. Jones is now Chapel Hill fire chief.

"Chief Jones told me that one of the saddest things for him is that it took a tragedy like this to bring together the two departments that have been his life. This wasn't the way he wanted it to happen," Bosworth said.

Word of the Sznerch family's accident reached Pinellas Park firefighters during a Christmas party for the firefighters's children. The annual event originally was organized by Sznerch, who often played the role of Santa Claus.

"We found out about Pete just a little after we had asked all the kids to take a moment to remember firefighters no longer with us," said Lt. Will Bicknell, who supervised Sznerch during his final years with the Pinellas Park department.

"Pete was very active here. He was very dedicated," said Bicknell. "He truly loved the fire service. It was his life. Pete definitely believed that what he was doing was making a difference in people's lives. It's all just a real shame."

Sznerch joined the Pinellas Park department in the mid 1980s and took an early retirement in 1998. He also served the South Pasadena Fire Department as a volunteer. During his Pinellas Park tenure, Sznerch taught at the Pinellas County Fire Academy and was a member of the county's Hazmat team and technical research team.

"Pete was very popular in the department," said fire Chief Ken Cramer. "He was an outstanding individual. He was so bubbly and so positive. He will be really missed."

Bicknell and several other members of the Pinellas Park department went to Orlando to support Sznerch's family. The department is in the process of setting up a trust fund for Nicholas.

No details on a planned memorial service for Sznerch and his daughter were available Tuesday.

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