Cpt. John Keppler Jr. had been a volunteer firefighter in Flagler County since retiring here from Pennsylvania in 1993, though at age 54 he’d been fighting fires for 40 years, starting in New Jersey when he was 14.
On March 21, 2002, he collapsed and died of a heart attack within five hours of responding to an emergency call in the Mondex.
On Tuesday in Tallahassee, when Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater unveils Florida’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial on the grounds of the State Capitol, Keppler’s will be among the nearly 200 names chiseled on a memorial dedicated to firefighters who have died in the line of duty. Atwater invited Keppler’s two sons, Andrew and John, both of whom are lieutenant firefighter-paramedics with Flagler County Fire Rescue, to speak at the unveiling. And that’s where they’ll be Tuesday, along with their mother, Kathleen Morey, to honor the memory of a man Andrew, echoing his brother’s words, calls “my father, my officer, my brother and my best friend.”
It is the third time the late Keppler’s name will be inscribed on a fallen firefighters’ memorial. His name also appears on the Florida Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Ocala, alongside the names of 174 men and women, the first one recorded in 1888. And Keppler’s name appears on the national firefighters’ memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., where he was added only a few years ago.
The only place where Keppler does not have his name recognized is in his home county, and the county where he gave his life: Keppler is Flagler County’s only firefighter to have died in the line of duty. Not only is there no memorial to his name. The county doesn’t even recognize Keppler’s death as being a line-of-duty death.
“We do empathize with the loss of her husband,” Sally Sherman, the county’s deputy administrator, said last week, referring to Keppler’s widow, who lives in Flagler Beach and has remarried. “We feel privileged that both of her sons are full time firefighter-paramedics lieutenants with Flagler County Fire Rescue, carrying on their father’s legacy. We don’t deny that Mr. Keppler was a volunteer firefighter.” Sherman knows his history and time of service from 1993 to 2002. “He was an active volunteer firefighter. But here comes the situation,” she says.
“What we can’t do sir, is to say that his death was considered a line of duty death,” Sherman said—a determination that would also entail the payment of benefits accordingly.
Sherman and Joe Mayer, the county’s human resources director, cite the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act of 1976, which extends benefits to survivors of public safety officers, including firefighters, who die either directly in the line of duty or as “proximate result” of stress or injury resulting from line-of-duty work. In 2003, President Bush extended benefit to include heart attacks precisely like those Keppler suffered. But the law was not made retroactive.
“As a parent of a firefighter paramedic I empathize with their loss and it pains me to know that they lost their father in that way and she lost her husband,” Sherman said, “but again, based on the information that we have, it doesn’t qualify, she doesn’t qualify for survivors’ benefits.”
“If he died after December 15, 2003, it would not be an issue,” Mayer said.
Keppler had worked a fire call that Wednesday. Thursday, he was supposed to be off. It was March 21, 2002, the first day of spring. He went on a medical call anyway. It was about noon, an attempted suicide on Mango Street in Daytona North, also known as the Mondex. He and fellow-firefighter Tinka Bishop-Brannon responded at the St. Johns Park fire station and went to the call on Engine 71. “The call went without incident,” Bishop-Brannon recalled almost 10 years later. “As John and I came back to the station from Mango Street, he began complaining of heartburn.” He then went home. When his wife got home from work at 4:30 p.m., he told her he wasn’t feeling well. She took him to the old Memorial hospital in Flagler.
He was five feet from the Emergency Room entrance when he collapsed. Medical staff’s attempts to revive him were in vain. He was pronounced dead at 5:30 p.m. He was a fourth-generation firefighter in a family to whom fighting fires was expected, to whom fighting fires was second nature. He had spent the last 11 years of his life fighting fires alongside his two sons, neither of whom knew that he’d been working the day he died. It was only years later, going through records at the St. Johns station, that they came across documents showing that, in fact, he had been on a call hours before his death, documents corroborated by two firefighters who’d worked with him that day—Bisho-Brannon and Yann Roberto Vidal. Vidal didn’t remember the actual call, but, in a 2011 memo, he wrote that he’d signed the medical-call paperwork pertaining to the March 21, 2002 call, documentation that showed Keppler’s involvement in the call.
Initially, as far as the Keppler family was concerned, the county had sought to distance itself from Keppler as a volunteer firefighter, saying records were not showing that he was an actual volunteer. But the records the two brothers eventually produced made it difficult for the county to deny that John Keppler Jr. had been, in fact, a volunteer firefighter all those years. But still, while Sherman says the county would be honored to provide a certificate of service or something along those lines, the death can still not be recognized as a line-of-duty death—even if the nation and the state recognize it as such.
Keppler’s sons, John and Andrew, speak proudly of their father and of Tuesday’s event in Tallahassee. They’re reluctant to speak about the county’s refusal to acknowledge what is being so ceremoniously recognized by the state or the country, largely because they don’t want to jeopardize their work as firefighters for the county. But as they speak about their father, they’re unable not to address the matter, and this in particular: it’s not the benefits they’re after. It’s simply the recognition that he died in the line of duty.
“My mom is not asking for much,” Andrew says. “All he’s asking for is for my father to be recognized for what he was.”
“It’s definitely—it’s upsetting,” John says. “Mostly, the most upsetting about it is the fact that I work for the county,” he says, “I’m a fireman for the county, a lieutenant for the county, I love this county, I’ve dedicated my life to protect the citizens of this county, I just like to see credit given where credit is due. I’m not mad. It’s sad, it’s unfortunate. But there’s only so much you can say because of the fact that I do work for the county.”
In 1993 in Pennsylvania, John and his father were trapped in a house on fire. The fire had appeared to have been put out, at least on the first and second floors. It was still burning in the basement. It traveled from basement to attic through the walls. Both men escaped death when the older Keppler smashed out a gable and caught the attention of a photographer shooting the scene below, enabling firefighters to bring a ladder and get both men out. “He was a good fireman, one of the best firemen I’ve ever seen,” John says, recalling that day. “He had what’s missing in a lot of firemen nowadays and for quite some time: he had a lot of experience, he saw a lot of fire.”
Andrew and John got the invitation to the Tallahassee unveiling from Atwater almost three weeks ago, but it wasn’t until last week that they were told that they’d be speaking at the event. Writing the speech has been a work in progress, Andrew said, describing—as would his brother—his father as a larger-than-life man in every sense: size, heart, achievements, and especially, generosity. A recurring memory for both boys as they were growing up was the number of times their father would be ambushed by the gratefulness of strangers who’d been helped or touched by his work one way or another. In one case, he’d helped a woman through a difficult labor emergency. It was right around the time when “E.T.,” the movie, came out, in 1982. The woman’s husband carved him a bust of E.T., which is now with Keppler’s only daughter, Monica.
As a young boy John witnessed his father administer CPR to someone as an emergency developed suddenly when the family was at a train station in New Jersey. “I was probably six years old maybe, seven years old,” John says. “To watch your dad do that at such a young age, it makes an impression on you, which is probably why my brother and I do what we do now. There was no doubt what I was going to when I grew up. I was going to be just like my dad.”
“My father dedicated his life to his fellow man. He just enjoyed helping people,” Andrew says. “It’s nice having some place to go and see his name, with him being recognized for the sacrifice he made to the citizens of Flagler County, something we don’t have here locally.”