Friends remember Tony Nunes, Berkeley firefighter, who died at age 54

Tamara Katoni/Staff

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Those who knew Anthony “Tony” Nunes remember him as the personification of fortitude — someone who could navigate a spinning airplane and turn the situation into a teaching moment.

Such pluckiness was characteristic of Nunes — firefighter, brother, adventurer, pilot — whose spirit was celebrated during a memorial service by more than 100 people at UC Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion on Sunday.

After working for almost three decades with the Berkeley Fire Department, Nunes died in an off-duty accident Feb. 23 when the tractor he was operating on his family’s property overturned and rolled down a precipitous hill. He was 54.

According to Berkeleyside, Nunes had previously worked as a reserve firefighter with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District and then for seven years at the Piedmont Fire Department. Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb said he was also one of the first firefighter paramedics in Berkeley.

Webb said one could always count on Nunes to be calm in times of distress — he worked hard but never appeared to be stressed out. Friends joked he was born without an adrenal gland.

“Hey,” Nunes would say, “It’s just a fire.”

At the service, Nunes’ spirit was ubiquitous in each person’s recollections. Those who spoke relaxed into punchy, familiar slang when describing Nunes — as though the memory of his own easygoing nature drew out everyone’s innate vivacity.

Tom Oakley, battalion chief for the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, wrote in an email that Nunes was “possibly the coolest cowboy that I ever knew.”

“He was someone that never had enough time to finish his projects but always had time to help someone else,” Oakley said.

At Sunday’s memorial service, Colin Arnold, an apparatus operator at Berkeley Fire Department, recounted the many hours that he and Nunes spent cramped side by side in a tiny plane when Nunes taught him how to pilot.

One time, Arnold recalled, Nunes purposely stalled the plane — it went into spin, and the engine revved up.

“I was sitting there realizing that I hadn’t spent nearly enough time in my life praying,” Arnold said. “I looked over, and Tony was sitting there with a grin on his face, arms folded, unbelievably calm. In a moment of extreme panic, Tony found a teaching opportunity.”

Arnold recalled that, after the men regained control of the plane and landed, Nunes turned to him and smiled.

“Okay,” Nunes had said. “Let’s try it again.”

Nunes is survived by his two adult children, Antonia Polan and Thomas Nunes.

In lieu of flowers, Nunes’ family asks that friends make a donation to the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation to celebrate his enjoyment of working with children. Donations can also be made to B Walker Ranch, which serves adult individuals who have disabilities.

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @zoekleinfeld.