Family Awarded Benefits in Va. Firefighter Trainee's Death

DALE CITY, Va. -- Chris Turnbough can stop fighting now.

He won, with a little help from his friends.

Turnbough's late wife, 43-year-old Cecilia Turnbough, died in 2008 while she was training to be a volunteer firefighter for the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department.

Officials determined that Turnbough, who was an 8-year veteran emergency medical technician for the department, died of a heart attack.

Although the department ruled that her death was in the line-of-duty, the United States Department of Justice twice denied public safety officer benefits to her family.

The justice department ruled that Cecilia Turnbough was not a certified firefighter at the time of her death and therefore not eligible for benefits.

On Friday, Rep. Gerald E. "Gerry" Connolly, D-11th, announced that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently overturned the denial and that Cecilia Turnbough's family would be receiving benefits. According to information at the Department of Justice website, the public safety officer benefits for a line-of-duty death that occurred in 2009 amount to $315,746, split between the spouse and the children.

Connolly said he spoke with Holder and laid out the reasons that he should overturn the decision.

"Our case was simple," Connolly said during an announcement at Station 10 in Dale City on Friday. "Cecilia was a public safety officer. She was on duty at the time of her death and her death was caused by the strenuous activity she was engaged in at the time."

Chris Hool, the department chief of the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department, was one of the people who fought alongside Chris Turnbough.

Hool said that soon after Cecilia Turnbough's funeral, he started the process, on behalf of the department, to get benefits for Cecilia Turnbough's family, but was thwarted at every turn.

He finally went to Connolly after he had exhausted his options with the federal government.

Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue Chief Kevin McGee said the decision to deny Cecilia Turnbough's benefits would not have been overturned if not for Hool.

"Thankfully, Chris persevered to get the denial of this claim overturned," McGee said at the press conference.

McGee said the decision reached further than the Turnbough family.

He said recruits need to know that their families will receive their benefits after an accident or death.

"I don't want our recruits to have any questions in the back of their minds," McGee said.

Prince William Supervisor John D. Jenkins, D-Neabsco, also said the decision would have broad consequences.

"Legal precedents are sometimes established, and in effect, become defacto law. That's really what I'm seeing today. I think that this decision covers every single volunteer fireman in Prince William County," Jenkins said.

Hool said Cecilia Turnbough's death represented the "darkest time in the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department's history."

"I know it was the darkest time for me as the chief of the department," Hool said."Losing a member in the line of duty is something every chief fears."

Hool read from a letter Chris Turnbough sent to Connolly after hearing of Holder's decision.

"This has been an incredibly discouraging process and I didn't think my family would see this day," he wrote.

"My children and I have been vindicated and you have helped confirm something we knew all along. Cecilia Turnbough, my former wife and mother of three kids, Rich, Rebecca and Jack, tragically passed in the line-of-duty while serving with distinction as a public safety officer for the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department," he wrote.

Chris Turnbough thanked Hool in the letter.

"Chief Christopher Hool brought this case to your desk after years of shepherding us through the appeals process. We are deeply indebted to him for his tenacity and perseverance," the letter stated.

Connolly said the family could finally move on.

"Her family can now close a chapter on what has been obviously a painful and very difficult time," Connolly said.

Copyright 2012 - News & Messenger, Manassas, Va.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service