SARATOGA SPRINGS — The firefighters of Saratoga Springs weren't just co-workers to Mike Penovich. They were family. And in the wake of an accident that took the life of their fire chief, they gathered Thursday to support each other, as any tight-knit family would do.
Penovich, 38, was driving to Saratoga Springs Thursday about 10 a.m., returning after checking out a water tanker that the city was considering purchasing in Heber City. Witnesses said he was rounding Deer Creek Reservoir on U.S. 189 when the truck he was driving suddenly veered off the road. The truck cut a straight line through the gravel, flew down a 75-foot cliff, struck the rocks and rolled into the water.
At the time of the wreck, Josh Castellanos, 27, Orem, and "Two Tone," 33, Salt Lake City, who gave no other name, were fishing on the other side of the lake when they heard the truck strike the rocks. They turned and saw a cloud of dust and a red sinking object.
They went to investigate and found the truck's vehicle registration floating among the debris. That was when they realized a person went down with the truck.
Two Tone, an experienced free diver, plunged into the water. In clear water, he might reach depths of 40 to 45 feet. But in Deer Creek Reservoir, he could only dive to about 25 feet before the water became too murky.
"I was just trying to help somebody," he said. "It's frustrating."
The two friends phoned 911. As they waited, feelings of helplessness sunk in.
"We were just basically sitting there watching him die," Castellanos said.
A scuba team arrived half an hour after the accident and found the truck submerged in 50 feet of water and about 10 yards from shore. They freed Penovich's body and brought it to the surface about 11 a.m.
Salvage crews managed to attach a cable to the truck and reeled it to the shore at 2 p.m. The hood was mangled and the front-left side was crushed. As the wreckage emerged from the water, Castellanos shook his head in disbelief and softly said, "Horrible. ... Can't even imagine."
Penovich's grieving firefighters remembered him as a supportive chief.
"He said we were like his kids," firefighter Dawnya Dekarver said, holding back tears. "He always had our back. Many of us wouldn't be where we are if not for him."
Dekarver and her co-workers gathered in the shadow of a half-staff flag Thursday. They spoke softly, sometimes crying and sometimes smiling as they remembered their fallen leader.
Capt. Rick Scott said Penovich spent countless hours mentoring members of the relatively new fire department. He remembered one late night when they were both still at the station.
"You need to get home to your family," Scott said to Penovich.
"I will," Penovich replied. "When I'm done with this family."
Police are still unsure what caused the truck to careen off the road. Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Randall Richey said they have no suspicion that alcohol or drugs were involved. Witnesses said a dark-colored vehicle, possibly a Ford Ranger, passed Penovich heading northbound. But investigators are unsure if Penovich swerved to avoid the vehicle.
Sgt. Jeff Nigbur of the Utah Highway Patrol said Penovich was wearing a seat belt.
In 2003, Penovich received the city's first Employee of the Year award. He started working in the city's public works department in 2002. In April 2006, after years of working as a volunteer firefighter in Cedar Fort, Penovich became the city's fire chief.
His wife and children described him as a wonderful husband and father.
When Ken Leetham, Saratoga Springs city manager, learned of the accident, he closed the city's office. He said Penovich's death has had a profound impact on the city.
"I would say there's not a person that I've known who's met Mike or been acquainted with Mike that didn't just thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the relationship," Leetham said. "He's just a cheerful guy. He would do anything for anybody. He would stop and help a stranger any time just as much as if it were his best friend. He's just a good man. ... He's going to leave a huge hole."
Contributing: Amy Choate-Nielsen