Wife of late firefighter still battling for recognition
Wife of late firefighter still battling for recognition
State forced to review line of duty death benefits for Gloucester firefighter
MaryBeth Smith says one of the hardest things to think about regarding her husband’s death is that if he ventured into a blaze like the 1998 Fisherman’s Wharf fire now, he would be protected.
“They didn’t have the proper apparatus, they didn’t have enough (units),” she recalls, having lived the last six years as a single mom raising three boys. “He was breathing in everything that was there — the chemicals, the materials treating the nets, everything. If it were today, none of this would be happening.”
But she also has no doubt in her mind that her late husband, Gloucester firefighter Michael Smith — who contracted non-Hodgkins lymphoma and passed away six years ago due to metastatic lung cancer — died in the line of service.
She has sought medical opinions from specialists at Mass General, Mount Sinai and elsewhere who all agree that Smith’s cancer was directly linked to him breathing through that infamous fire.
“There is no question he lost his life in the line of duty — no question,” she said. “He would be here today if it weren’t for that fire.”
The Gloucester Retirement Board and the state’s Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission (PERAC) have not quite acknowledged that. MaryBeth Smith and her family are still fighting for Michael to be recognized as having died in the line of duty and to recoup the pension benefits that recognition would bring.
An October ruling by the state’s Division of Administrative Law Appeals has ordered PERAC to convene a medical panel to review the records and evaluate Smith’s case.
“But the fact is, this should have been established long ago,” said attorney Joseph Orlando Sr., who is representing the Smith family and bristles at the denial of benefits and a lack of follow-up action on Smith’s case by both PERAC and the Gloucester Retirement Board.
As a firefighter who died from a related disability — which is Smith’s current status — his family is eligible to receive 72 percent of his pension benefits. But if he were recognized as killed in the line of duty, the family would be eligible to collect at 100 percent, or at a one-time pension benefit of $150,000, according to state guidelines.
Orlando said the issue runs far beyond any monetary benefit the Smiths — MaryBeth, and sons Noah, 19, Luke, 15, and Josh, 11 — would reap from the recognition.
“Here is a guy who is a hero — he gave his life fighting this fire for the people of this city, just like all of our police and firefighters,” Orlando said. “But what are these boards saying?
“They’re telling them,” he said, “‘Thanks for all you do, and we appreciate that you put your life on the line, but don’t ask us to take care of your wife and kids if anything happens.’
“That’s a chilling message for us to send police and firefighters in this city,” said Orlando.
Smith was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000, and following two bouts with the disease and extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he finally succumbed to the cancer in 2012. He remained on duty for much of that time.
The local retirement board passed Smith’s original claim on to PERAC for evaluation, but without any recommendation to provide benefits.
The state panel then turned down the request, despite not convening a medical panel to assess the validity of MaryBeth Smith’s claims, and it returned its decision to the local board, to which Smith and Orlando filed an appeal.
“They have not been supportive,” MaryBeth Smith said of the Gloucester board, which meets monthly and is due to hold its December meeting Wednesday at 3 p.m. at its 127 Eastern Ave. headquarters. “They will not acknowledge (that Michael died in the line of duty).”
“To turn this down without convening a medical panel is absurd — it’s beyond absurd,” said Orlando, who has submitted doctors assessments and medical records dating to 2006 with both the local board and PERAC.
Virtually all of those files indicate that Smith’s death was triggered by his job. Smith, who lived with his family in Essex, was 43 at the time of his death.
Not that easy
Retired Gloucester firefighter Douglas MacArthur Sr., who heads the local board that also includes city Human Resources Director Donna Leete and city Auditor Kenny Costa, said any decision is not that simple. He noted that the local board is bound to hold to PERAC’s decision.
Meanwhile, John Parsons, general counsel for PERAC, said it wouldn’t be appropriate for a local board to recommend a decision on benefits yet without first convening a medical panel.
Parsons said that — given MaryBeth Smith’s appeal is a review of records, not a new case involving medical exams and other requirements — he would anticipate some sort of decision in January.
“We have not received the request from the Gloucester Retirement Board (for the review),” Parsons said, “and the administrative officer (in Gloucester) has to first decide what to send to us. Then we forward to one of our doctors for a review, but once we get that, it shouldn’t take that long.”
Parsons also acknowledged that the case includes some other complications, including that most killed in the line of duty benefits stem from traumatic and instant deaths at a fire or other emergency scene.
“Not that it’s anything that diminishes the application, but it is unusual for a ‘line of duty death’ to be alleged so distant in time from an incident,” he said. “Usually it’s immediate — a shooting, for example.”
Also, at least two of the medical opinions from doctors who evaluated Smith’s case after his passing suggest the radiation and other treatments were contributory causes to his death — claims that make Orlando irate.
“It’s the same cause — he wouldn’t have had to have those treatments if he hadn’t gone into the fire in the first place,” Orlando said. “He died because of the fire, and he was clearly killed in the line of duty fighting that fire on behalf of all of us in this city.”
In the meantime, MaryBeth Smith’s request is garnering more support — including from Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken. The mayor noted that new legislation signed by Gov. Charlie Baker has opened the door to providing more death benefits to the families of firefighters, though it’s not clear the new benefits law would apply directly to Smith’s case.
“I want the best for the family,” said Romeo Theken, conceding that, as mayor, she has no direct say over any decision by the retirement board or PERAC.
“He was serving our city, and I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who provides service to our city like that,” she added. “As a private citizen, I’m hoping they can overturn (the earlier PERAC) decision and give (the family) his full benefits. My personal opinion is they deserve that.”
Through it all, MaryBeth Smith, now 45, presses forward working at AET Labs in Essex, while Noah attends Purdue University, Luke is at Manchester Essex Regional High, and Josh is at Essex Elementary. The family still lives in Essex.
She says she tries not to be bitter about her loss, about any ongoing dispute over her husband’s recognition, and the fact that firefighting safety equipment has advanced by leaps and bounds since 1998.
“I’m a single mother raising three kids — of course, I wonder what it would have been like with two parents and a household,” she said.
“I’m trying not to live (with bitterness),” she added. “I’m trying to focus on the here and now, and getting (Michael) recognized for what he deserves.”
Staff writer Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at [email protected].