Highway 76, a winding two-lane road heavily travelled by visitors to the North County’s casinos, has seen more than its share of awful car wrecks.
One driver who missed a turn and plunged hundreds of feet in a fiery crash during the night last fall may owe her life to a volunteer park host in the County’s Wilderness Gardens Preserve.
The volunteer, Paul Marciniak, 59, who lives with his dog in the secluded Pala-area preserve about nine miles east of Interstate 15, downplays his contribution.
“That’s part of my job here…all I did was call 911,” he said in a recent interview, adding that firefighters who responded to that call did indeed save the driver’s life.
But County Parks and Recreation Director Brian Albright said he’s pretty sure Marciniak’s presence in the isolated park that night made a critical difference, because otherwise the crash might have gone unreported.
And the case illustrates the benefits of having volunteers who live in County parks, Albright said.
“I feel like I can say with confidence, if we had not had a park volunteer, and Paul had not been in his trailer, this woman would not be alive,” Albright said.
The County has about 60 volunteer park hosts. They live in their own trailers; County Parks and Recreation provides hookups and charges no rent.
In return, the volunteers provide 20 hours of service a week, and duties vary by location. They keep the parks clean, maintain trails, and update park kiosks.
That November night, Marciniak had finished his shift as a security guard at the Golden Door spa in the Deer Springs and was getting ready for bed when he heard the screeching of tires and the racket of a car crashing into the canyon.
This wasn’t the first car that had gone off the curvy road in the two-plus years Marciniak had lived in the 730-acre preserve. He immediately called 911, then headed out with flashlight in hand to see if he could find the wreckage.
“ I told the dog, ‘Let’s go find out where this one landed.’”
The car had ended up near the main parking area and exploded into flames. By the time Marciniak reached the area, firefighters alerted by his 911 call had arrived too.
Marciniak and a Pala fire chief heard the faint sounds of the driver, who was somehow still conscious, Marciniak said. It would turn out she had been thrown through the sunroof , landing about 100 feet from the twisted wreckage.
The fire chief and the park volunteer both searched in the dark with flashlights.
“It was actually the fire chief who found her,” Marciniak said.
The woman was rushed by helicopter to the hospital.
Using a wheelchair and recovering, the woman recently visited Wilderness Gardens with her boyfriend to thank Marciniak.
Albright said Marciniak’s actions highlight an advantage of having volunteers who live in the park: they can be eyes and ears when there is no one else around, reporting emergencies and crime.
Marciniak said in addition to phoning in crashes, he keeps an eye out for wildfires.
In the past, as a host at Felicita Park in Escondido, Marciniak said he would sometimes have to call rangers or law enforcement because of trespassers or occasionally vandals in the park.
“People may wonder why we need people staying overnight in the parks that don’t have campgrounds,” Albright said. “They contribute a lot in security, and what Paul did shows that.”