Utah Fire Chief Killed in Crash


Updated: 07-06-2007 11:22:42 AM


ERIN ALBERTY
The Salt Lake Tribune


SARATOGA SPRINGS - For a fire chief who died Thursday after his truck plunged from a cliff into Deer Creek Reservoir, colleagues here echoed a consistent refrain: A big man leaves a big void.

"He's irreplaceable on so many fronts," city fire Capt. Tayna Kahn said of Chief Michael J. Penovich.

The 38-year-old chief was driving a fire department pickup truck south on U.S. Highway 189 after a meeting in Heber City about 10 a.m., when the pickup veered off an 80-foot embankment to the west. Police said the truck bounced off the ground and into the reservoir, where authorities found Penovich dead in the cab under 50 feet of water.

Firefighters gathered tearfully near the half-staff flag outside the Saratoga Springs fire station Thursday evening to eulogize the man they called "Teddy Bear" for his immense stature and gentle demeanor.

"You heard his voice on the radio, and it just had a calming effect," said Todd Butterfield, a firefighter in nearby Cedar Fort, where Penovich was chief for six years before taking the top post in Saratoga Springs in April 2006.

"It was like he was happy to talk to you, even when you were telling him everything was blowing up in his face," agreed Saratoga Springs firefighter Dan Lincoln.

It is not clear why Penovich's truck left the road, said Utah Highway Patrol spokesman Jeff Nigbur. Authorities on Thursday were awaiting an autopsy to determine whether Penovich drowned or died of head trauma, which he may have suffered when the truck hit the ground, Nigbur said. The seat belt was in position over the driver's shoulder and waist, but the buckle was not fastened, Nigbur said.

There is a concrete barrier for most of the road along the reservoir, but the barrier ends at a gravel public access lot, where the truck left the road.

The Tribune could not reach Penovich's wife, Michelle, for comment. He had two children, 11 and 14, who firefighters said were mainstays in the fire station, often visiting while Penovich was spending late nights reading up on wildfire response or fielding the unrelenting series of phone calls to the Saratoga Springs station from Cedar Fort residents who were used to Penovich helping them out of binds.

"The whole city of Cedar Fort counted on him," Capt. Dawnya Dekarver said. ''He was always coming in and saying, 'I didn't get much sleep because the guy's horses down the street got out,' or, 'I was helping the neighbors move some hay.' ''

Penovich, a lifelong horse lover, passed up a college football scholarship to continue an award-winning career in rodeo, firefighters said. He attended Scottsdale Community College, where he later became a fire academy instructor.

He recently intensified his medical response studies in hopes of becoming a paramedic, DeKarver said.

"He was constantly reading, learning, trying to make himself better," she said.

Two boaters discovered his medical kit floating in the reservoir near the crash site.

One of the boaters, a 33-year-old Salt Lake City musician who calls himself 2Tone, dived into the reservoir to search for Penovich's truck shortly after the crash, but the water was too murky.

"I just couldn't see anything," 2Tone said.

Penovich was among the first chiefs in Utah County to contract with the state to fight wildfires and was known for providing the best equipment for his crews, Utah County Fire Warden Delbert Jay said.

"He's probably the most progressive chief in the county."

ealberty@sltrib.com

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Funeral information
Chief Penovich's family will have a public visitation at the Saratoga Springs LDS Stake Center (587 S. Saratoga Dr.), Thursday, July 12, 2007 from 6:00pm-8:00pm.

Another public visitation will take place at the same location, on Friday, July 13, 2007 from 9:00am-11:00am. Chief Penovich???s body will then travel to the American Fork LDS Tabernacle (114 E. Main St.), for the funeral services.

The funeral services will take place on Friday, July 13, 2007 at 12:00 noon, at the Tabernacle. All are invited to attend. Following the funeral services, a formal procession will take place. The procession route will ultimately end at the Lehi Pioneer Memorial Cemetery, where the internment will occur.