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The Village Council voted unanimously this week to bestow a $75,000 death benefit to the family of Ronald Erbel, the firefighter who died of cancer after responding to the World Trade Center following the 2001 terrorist attack. 

But his widow still wants Key Biscayne to designate Erbel’s death as occurring in the line of duty – a term that decades later is still legally unsettled. 

“I appreciate that the Village does recognize his death benefit – and hope that they continue to honor Ron,” said Victoria Jackson, Erbels wife. “It’s about the principle of honoring Ron and just doing what should be done.” 

Village Manager Steve Williamson told the Independent on Thursday he has directed the Village attorney to reach out to the Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to see if there is a way to designate Erbel’s death as a line-of-duty fatality.

Right now, Williamson said because Erbel died after he retired in 2019,  the Village believes state law does not allow it to categorize his passing as a line-of-duty death. The death benefit approved on Tuesday is under a 2019 state law that mandates the $75,000 to any firefighter who died from 21 specific cancers, he said. 

“Unfortunately, Ron ended up with many different cancers and from being up at the twin towers. I do believe that my late husband was a true hero,” Jackson told the Council on Tuesday.

Erbel spent 17 days in New York City following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as part of a search and rescue task force. As a result, Erbel – along with numerous other first responders – was exposed to dust, smoke and chemicals that led to cancer.

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A recent meta-analysis from Journal of National Cancer Institute identified a 19% higher risk of prostate cancer in WTC responders as compared with the general population. An earlier study by Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York found a 41% high risk of leukemia and 219% increased risk of thyroid cancer.

Entertainer Jon Stewart made injuries to WTC firefighters a cause célèbre in fighting for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund reauthorization that was signed into law in 2019 to ensure health care through 2092.

The Village administration did recommend different wording in the resolution that caused a moment of tension on the dais. 

It originally read the Village wasn’t legally mandated to pay $75,000 under state law, but that the Council would instead be approving it for a “public purpose.” That paragraph, however, was stricken from the resolution at the behest of Council Member Frank Caplan.

“Do we need to say it?” Caplan asked. 

“We can take it out,” agreed Village Attorney Chad Friedman.

With the language removed, the resolution passed unanimously.

The line of duty designation does come with some added financial benefits. Jackson would not have to pay property taxes on her Key Biscayne home. She noted Erbel’s name is on the Fallen Fighter Memorial in Colorado Springs, Colo.  That designation is made by the International Association of Firefighters, a union.

Eddie Blanco, the president of the local firefighter’s union, called the situation “complicated” because of the retirement issue but said  “We believe it’s a line of duty death.” 

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.