“I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Oh my God, thank you, my kids are safe,’” she said.
Zapien, behind the wheel, had been traveling with her boyfriend, Luis Mata, and their four children — Jonathan, 3, Elizabeth, 7, Luis, 10, and Patricia, 11 — to a Sunday service at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church around 1 p.m.
After the crash, she could hear the children screaming in the back seats.
“I was so scared when this happened,” she said. “I was afraid to open the (minivan) sliding door. I was afraid of what I would find.”
Although shaken up, all four children were uninjured, and the younger three were still strapped into the car seats given to the family by Tracy Fire Department.
The department’s Child Automotive Restraint Education and Safety program distributes free seats to low-income families.
Zapien received hers during the third annual Tracy Celebrates Children day on March 8 at West Valley Bowl.
After years of using hand-me-downs passed from child to child, Zapien said she was determined to go to the event and replace her children’s car seats.
“I did everything to get over there that day,” she said. “It’s hard (to buy seats) with four kids. This was a great opportunity.”
According to fire Capt. Jim Haskell, the car seat program was funded through a $26,000 grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in October 2012.
California law says children younger than 8 years old or weighing less than 80 pounds must be restrained in a car seat, but Haskell said every child and every vehicle is different, and some older children may still benefit from a booster seat.
He said it is critical that parents replace old, worn car seats.
“Car seats have a six-year lifespan, and her seats were in bad shape,” Haskell said. “I am glad that we are able to protect the children of our community, one car seat at a time.”
A family friend, Traci Carr, called the free car seats a “godsend.”
“They can’t afford to buy new seats,” she said. “The program works. I know (those seats) made a difference.”
Because the car seats were involved in the July 28 crash, they needed to be replaced, and Haskell provided Zapien and her family with three new seats July 30 at Fire Station 94, 16502 Schulte Road.
Smiling broadly, 3-year-old Jonathan shook Haskell’s hand and thanked him as he got his second new car seat in five months.
“I’m so thankful,” Zapien said. “One less thing I have to worry about — it’s a blessing.”
• Contact Denise Ellen Rizzo at 830-4225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.