Peter Zarba, whose spinal cord injury led to a wheelchair and a life helping and inspiring others with disabilities, died Friday of a heart attack at age 56.
He was sales manager at Bussani Mobility in Bethpage, which sells and customizes accessible vehicles for disabled passengers and drivers like himself. He was one of its earliest employees, starting almost 31 years ago.
The car accident that left him with a broken neck at age 18 during his first year at an upstate business school barely slowed him. A tall and lanky high school varsity soccer captain and high jumper, he went on after his injury to ski, skydive, kayak, hunt, fly gliders and travel from Japan to Jamaica.
He helped found the U.S. Quad Rugby Association's team, the New York Warriors; he raced in the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:17:58; and was instrumental in negotiations to have wheelchair athletes race before runners in the New York City Marathon. He played competitive table tennis at the 1988 ParaOlympics in Seoul as well as in local, regional, and world competitions.
But he was "happiest with a fishing pole in his hand," said his sister Theresa Kenny, of Hingham, Mass., who said he piloted a customized 23-foot-long Mariner powerboat docked behind his Island Park home.
"No one ever met a better or more successful fisherman," she said. "He brought in the biggest stripers that anyone had ever seen. No one brought in more or bigger fish than Pete."
Larry Gulitti, who worked under Zarba, said, "He didn't let his disability hold him back. He did more things in his chair than I would ever consider doing standing up."
After superstorm Sandy, Zarba and his sales force spent hours finding vehicles for clients left stranded when floodwaters destroyed their vans. At the same time, he, his wife, Molly, and their twins, Peter and Mary, who turn 14 Saturday, evacuated their flooded house.
They returned only when power -- and the use of his elevator to the undamaged second floor -- was restored.
He fought hard and successfully for a quick release of insurance funds and was still overseeing repairs to his heavily damaged first floor as well as to two other rental properties at the time of his death.
He suffered a massive heart attack two weeks ago, and never regained consciousness before being removed from life support at South Nassau Community Hospital on Friday.
He was overseeing repairs to his home and two rental properties. His accessible kitchen -- he was the family cook -- is still incomplete.
Although Zarba's family said he made life look easy, he was fully aware of the obstacles he faced. "It's safe to say that people with special needs have an additional level of expense, an additional level of delay, a lack of understanding and a lack of resources and limited alternatives," he said about the Sandy-damaged accessible vans.
Gulitti described his boss as "pretty forceful -- for a low-key guy . . . He didn't take crap from anybody and had very little tolerance for people who didn't understand disability, or handicapped parking. Stuff like that would make him crazy."
Survivors also include sisters Mary C. Zarba, 59, of Vail, Colo., Rose Zarba-Kastl, 53, of Mystic, Conn., Gina Thiemann, 50, of North Redington Beach, Fla.; and brother Christopher, 58, of Annapolis, Md.
"He had a limitless ability to connect with every soul he ran across and a tireless desire to help everyone in need," said Kenny. "The accident didn't change him. If anything, it was like a magnifying glass. It just increased his good qualities. No obstacle was too great. . . . He embraced life with both hands and lived it big time."
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