Ron Erbel shares a lifetime of experience as the family prepares to celebrate his retirement party
When Ron Erbel graduated from Palmetto Senior High in the summer of 1969 he left the big city north of the causeway and never looked back.
Since then he appears to have been as busy as the honey bees he cares for in his backyard…industriously earning a living on the key, making life-long friends among his neighbors, and cultivating a passion for his beloved island home.
The 68 year old paramedic, firefighter, bee keeper, community volunteer, father of four, grandfather to nine, and husband, will be retiring this Fourth of July holiday weekend after 44 years of service with the Key Biscayne Fire Department.
“I am completely at peace with my retirement,” said Ron.
“I feel like I’ve done my job and served this community. In one way it’s going to end and I won’t be driving the fire truck, or in the back treating patients, but this is still my community.”
Perhaps now he will have the time to rock on a porch chair and share a near half century of stories with the many folks that meander over to his Mackle house on Glenridge for honey, a friendly hello, and maybe to ask for help fixing their dishwasher.
“In the early days we didn’t run emergency medical, we just did structure fires. The woods by Crandon Park Marina would burn on a regular basis because you had a lot of homeless people living out there.
“We had a fire on Harbor Drive once and the gentleman who owned the property was in the carpeting business. We kept hearing popping sounds confined to one storage bedroom. We were putting water at the seat of the fire and when we cleared it found a dresser drawer full of ammunition…that could have been more serious.”
Ron may be most well-known as far as his local service for being instrumental in saving the life of young Lucas Sullivan. A story well documented in the Islander News by former editor Kelly Josephsen.
“Ray Sullivan (one of the Fourth of July Parade elders who has since passed) had just come back from a boating trip with his grandson and docked right next to Jim Patterson and me.
“We were relaxing having a beer and we heard these screams for help. Lucas had gotten his head caught in the (electric) hydraulic piston hatch cover and it would not disconnect off.”
Patterson found a board in the vacant field nearby and they were able to use to pry it open. Ron was there to catch him and administer CPR to the nine year old who had turned blue. He was then emergency evacuated and in an induced coma for some time but today he has no deficit and is a thriving teen and part of the Erbel extended family.
There was a similar case when Ron happened to be driving on Crandon and a young boy was hit by a car and thrown from his bike about 15 feet. He rode with him in the emergency vehicle to Jackson holding him down physically to mitigate his convulsions. He also made it through okay and Ron sees him from time to time when he visits the key.
Not all the stories end that way.
“There have been times when the endings weren’t so great,” said Ron.
“I had an acquaintance I would see for coffee at the Oasis and we got a call one day and he had committed suicide. Those are the times when you get angry.”
Ron said his deep faith helps him find peace in whatever bad situation he has to confront and his training with Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) that is part of the fire rescue program, has been a help on site after hurricanes and in the over two weeks he spent at Ground Zero after 9-11 in 2001.
“You process, you share, and then you try to let it go,” said Ron.
“We don’t have a lot of the violence of Miami but we still have had young men overdose and we are the first ones there…or jumping off tall buildings, or hanging themselves, and we are the first ones there.”
The CISM leadership programs are in place to encourage briefings and teach teams to look out for each other and talk about the effects of crisis management situations. He has traveled around the state to talk to first responders and families.
“Life is fast paced and sometimes when things aren’t working out, people may be struggling financially and they want to be known for having this type of vehicle, or house, and live beyond their means…it causes stress and pressure.
“If they don’t have the friendships or can reach out and share like the CISM part of living they can shut down and their only choice seems suicide. Sadly too many are doing it.”
Ron was awarded firefighter of the year in 1991 from the State of Florida. His name is on a plaque in Tallahassee and the prestigious award ceremony included a meeting with then Governor Lawton Chiles and a trip to the state capitol for him and his family.
Making the cover of Ocean Drive Magazine with fellow local firefighters who traveled immediately after 9-11 to work at the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers after the terrorist attack was hard earned.
“In a way it’s a memory of a long time ago but it can be very fresh in my mind at times…like if I have to go into a stairwell, that smell of wet concrete can bring a flashback. Or every time I drive north and pass a landfill, that unique fragrance brings me back…”
Ron was on duty with the B shift when they heard the towers had been hit. At the time they were in a trailer where the police station parking lot is today as the fire department building was being built.
“I had trained with the city of Miami and crawled through an 18 inch pipe, worked with dogs to find cadavers…we got the call to make ourselves ready and deploy. By 6pm the five of us from Key Biscayne met with the team of 120 at Homestead Airforce Base. We had to drive a convoy of three semi-trucks full of equipment north because all military planes were deployed overseas as is emergency protocol. We arrived in New York 24 hours later.”
For seventeen days the team worked twelve hour shifts and slept first at a military base, and then at a makeshift bunker in the Javits Convention Center. They were stationed in what at the time was an unidentifiable zone of Ground Zero, propelling down six floors with a rope to find a way through the dangerous piles of rubble to search for remains.
“The steel beams were still hot to the touch…three or four flights down were where the subways were. I remember working on a pile one day and we found what we thought was a body because of the smell. When that happened everything would stop, and the ranking officers would come over.
“But it turned out not to be a body. I was in the freezer of The Windows on the World restaurant (formerly on the 107 floor of the North Tower) and all of the frozen meat was rotted down there.”
Ron said the first gas masks they were issued were paper and not readily being used.
“It was so hot wearing those we couldn’t wear them while we were working so most of the time it was not being worn. Later in the mission we got canister mask double filters…gas masks…those were harder to wear but we knew we had to.”
All 9-11 first responders like Ron were accepted in the World Trade Center Health Program.
Every year they get physicals and are watched for diseases that may have been caused from exposure. Two of the conditions he deals with today have been certified contributed from being at 9-11: cancer and COPD.
It was 2015 when he was first diagnosed and after a series of treatments went into remission. In March of this year they discovered his enzymes were high and the cancer was back and had metastasized into the bones.
The medication he is on now removes all his testosterone and adrenals and Ron jokes about how much it has mellowed him out.
“I was really mellow before but now I’m so mellow I cry at the movies.”
“It’s a disease like diabetes. There is no cure but it’s treatable and hopefully this medicine is buying time until they find a cure. I think positively that I am being cured by both my medicine and all of my friends that have been praying for me.”
Ron is currently on a medical leave of absence until he goes back to the station to clear out his locker at the end of this month. Unfortunately the legislation in Florida that has recently changed to catch up with New York--offering firefighters physically impacted by tours of duty unlimited medical leave--does not apply in his case and he is lobbying that situation locally.
“I can’t call myself a victim in any way,” said Ron.
“I have aches and pains but I’m 68 years old and some of those are from abuse to my body and from working so hard physically…but I feel great. Never stop growing and always be willing to give to others and take every day as a gift, because it is.”
Ron Erbel’s retirement party is on his favoite weekend of the year, Fourth of July.
The festivities are July 6 at 6pm, The Links. For more information call Victoria Jackson at 786.543.2115.
“If I saved your life or had a positive impact on you and your family please come celebrate with us!”