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Burnoski accidents provide multiple lessons in judgment

Tom Burnoski worked in San Francisco's majestic parks
Tom Burnoski worked in San Francisco's majestic parks
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The KTVU Channel 2 morning news reported that Thomas Burnoski was back in court for a prehearing conference Monday, July 21. His involvement in a tragedy in Holly Park was outlined the same day in the San Francisco Examiner.

What is known and what is presumed are sometimes not the same things. A good examination begins with the former, and it is a short list. However, no examination is legitimate without transparency.

Normally, a footnote at the bottom of this piece would note a connection with Burnoski, disclosing a conflict of interest. It would be stated impersonally, as proper journalism calls for reporters (not necessarily columnists) to avoid first-person writing.

This is not a normal situation. Burnoski and his family are long-standing members of Shiloh Church in Oakland, where I am a deacon.

We have never had contact outside of church or church functions. "Tom" as I know him was of course unable to speak with me about details of his case because it is pending, so there is no inside information. Nevertheless, our prior relationship is why it is imperative I stick to the facts.

Burnoski is a 58-year old was a seven-year veteran of the San Francisco Parks Department and had gotten some recognition for his work. He was involved in an incident in Holly Park Sept. 5, 2013 in which Christine Svanemyer was killed while sunbathing. He was not at the scene at the time of his arrest, but was at a nearby park location. He has been charged with felony hit-and-run and vehicular manslaughter and faces up to more than a decade in prison.

It is very easy to rush to judgment in these cases. Christianity teaches us not to in countless scriptures, just as they teach us forgiveness.

Some described Burnoski as fleeing from the scene, but he had driven to a nearby location and met with his supervisor. One comment on an article linked him to the problem of liberalism of San Francisco, but that is not a term that one would use to describe him. There is an eyewitness account the he drove in a prohibited area where the accident occurred, but San Francisco Examiner even noted his attorney said his client swerved to miss an unleashed dog.

Ms. Svanemyer was at the park with her dog (it is unknown whether that was the dog in question or whether it was unleashed) and 11-month old daughter, neither of which was hurt. A San Jose Mercury News story about her mentioned she was just 35, a Zen monk and director of enrollment at New Ventures West, a San Francisco-based school that trains life coaches where her husband also worked.

Burnoski has of course publicly stated he feels terrible about the tragedy. He actually understands it better than most, as this was not the only car accident to happen in his family just between April and October of 2013.

Tom's 20-year old daughter Tiffany died last April after the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Then ironically while coming from one of his father's court appearances, Jonathan Burnoski was involved in an incident for which he was initially received a hit-and-run charge. A San Francisco Examiner report stated a bicyclist impacted the vehicle after the 19-year old driver made a right turn, but thankfully no one was hurt.

The fact that one family can have three separate members involved in car accidents in just over half a year is remarkable enough. To have none of them to blame in one and two resulting in deaths is extraordinary. It also reminds us of the dangers of driving and the tragedy that can result from mistakes behind the wheel.

Do not drive if you are drowsy. Remember the mirrors have blind spots, so look over your shoulder. If there is any chance you struck something or something struck you, stop. Do not text or use phone functions while driving and make sure you can hear what is around you. Stay in safe areas as much as is possible and remember you control a deadly machine.

Finally, this family's accidents teach us of the fragility of life and how little we control. Tell your loved ones how important they are in case you do not get another chance. Appreciate what you have in this life but keep your heart fixed on the eternal things of God.

Note: San Francisco Examiner and SF Christian Examiner are not affiliated, though the same parent company eventually bought both publications.

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