ORLANDO, Fla. — Could a fire that Channel 9 covered 15 years ago be responsible for a string of cancer cases among local firefighters?
A local attorney and his clients believe so, and they said their claims for compensation have been denied.
The families of at least four Orange County firefighters believe their cancer can be traced back to a 2006 fire.
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So far, though, their attorney said line of duty death and medical benefits are tough to come by, and that is true for other fires, too.
Investigative reporter Karla Ray spoke to three of the families, and looked into why these claims are being denied despite a law intended to help firefighters when they’re diagnosed with cancer.
“I grew up in a fire station,” said Travis Brown, a former firefighter. “As a little boy, I knew it was all I ever wanted to be.”
“He was very passionate about what he did,” said Christy Siena, the wife of a firefighter.
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“His job was everything; he loved it,” said Brittney Vanravenswaay, the daughter of a firefighter. “Even when he got sick, he said, ‘I would not give up what I did, doing the job I loved.’”
It’s more than just a job, even with the risks.
“I remember going to the gate, and there (was) a skull and crossbones on the gate where it had been cut open, and we were inside, a big plume of black smoke coming out of the building,” Brown said.
Though it’s been 15 years, Brown remembers the day he arrived at a warehouse fire in April 2006.
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What seemed like a small chemical fire to Channel 9 reporters who covered the story caused deep concern for the career first responder.
“As we walked around the building, we found a lake of green water coming out of the building,” Brown said. “It was the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Brown said he was not on the hazmat team, but Christy Siena said her husband Eric was on the team.
“People’s gear was falling apart, like at the seams,” she said. “It was just disintegrating from the chemicals.”
Brittney Vanravenswaay’s father, Stephen Vanravenswaay, was also on the hazmat team.
“He loved the fire department, he loved saving people, every aspect of the job,” she said.
All three believe it was that common call that led to the diagnosis of Stephen Vanravenswaay’s pancreatic cancer in 2015, Eric’s brain cancer in early 2020, and Travis’ bile duct cancer a year ago. He’s the only one of the three still alive.
“I’ve done 27 years of my life saving people, and helping people, and now I feel like everybody is turning their backs,” Brown said.
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Attorney Geoff Bichler said his client’s worker compensation claims have been denied, and benefits under Florida’s Firefighter Cancer Bill, written specifically to address occupational cancers among first responders like these, also have not been paid.
“The only benefit that has been paid is the diagnosis benefit for Eric Siena, and even in that case, now they’re denying death benefits under the law,” Bichler said. “They’re telling us we have to prove it.”
Bichler said claims such as these are commonly denied, despite studies proving that firefighters are at a higher risk for cancer.
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He is still fighting for Siena and Vanravenswaay through the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
In Brown’s case, his diagnosis is not one of the 21 cancers listed in state law as being eliginle for benefits.
“I realized quickly I was a number, a replaceable number. That’s what stung,” he said.
These first responder families say it is time to close any loophole that makes proving a link between cancer and the job so difficult.
“It’s time to just really fully acknowledge that this is an occupational disease,” Bichler said. “That’s why I think this case is so critical.”
Orange County Fire Rescue said it does not comment on pending litigation.
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