More than 300 people gathered Saturday to mourn Ron Erbel, a man whom just about everyone on Key Biscayne knew, but in strikingly different ways. For the honor guard and those in a procession of fire trucks on village streets, he was the hero firefighter who responded to 9/11, contracting the cancer that would take his life.
To others, he was the guy who climbed trees or mowed grass. Perhaps he was the beekeeper, or the barterer, always there with what one needed.
He represented the “cornerstone to this community,” said one of his daughters, Jennifer Hardison.
“My dad really was Key Biscayne’s guy,” Hardison told the overflow gathering at Key Biscayne Community Church, as family members placed hands on her shoulders for support. “Dad had this way of making people feel seen and known. And that’s why he’s the first guy you remember meeting.”
Wiping away tears, another daughter, Ashley Erbel-Sumon, read a poem and thanked attendees for their compassion and love.
“Thank you for showing me and for telling me just how special he was,” she said. “I was raised by a legend. This honors me and my family. This makes me feel so special.”
“I will miss Ron terribly,” said his widow, Victoria Jackson. “But Ron grew tired. He told me it was time for him to go home. After he took his last breath here on Earth, we knew his next breath would be in the presence of our Almighty Father.”
Erbel was a member of a search and rescue task force that mobilized after the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. He spent 17 days searching the rubble, and was exposed to toxic conditions that later led to the cancer that would claim his life, said Fire Chief Eric Lang.
The experience led Erbel to fight for better protections and assistance for first responders.
“Ron was passionate about mental health. And about helping responders process the traumas that we collect through the years of emergencies in everyday life,” Lang said.
Walter Dix, district vice president of the International Association of Firefighters, presented a line of duty death award, the highest honor associated with the organization. Erbel served for 26 years as a career firefighter, and seven as a volunteer firefighter. Dix noted that firefighter occupational cancer is the leading cause of line of duty deaths in the fire service.
The memorial ended with the tolling of a firehouse bell, as a final radio call was played:
“Firefighter Ron Erbel has completed his task. His duties were well done, and we bid you farewell now on your last alarm.”
Erbel is also by survived by brother David Ralph Erbel, sisters Lennette Ulrich and Adele Fredenburg, and nine grandchildren.
The family has asked those wishing to remember Erbel contribute to the Ron Erbel Fund for Firefighters, established by the Key Biscayne Community Foundation
Tony Winton contributed to this report.