Clay County deputy critically injured in motorcycle crash

FHP: Driver of trailer-hauling truck failed to yield right of way to deputy

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – A Clay County sheriff's deputy was on duty when he was critically injured in a crash late Sunday morning in Orange Park, authorities said.

It happened about 11 a.m. while Traffic Deputy Ben Zirbel, a 12-year veteran of the Clay County Sheriff's Office, was riding his agency-issued motorcycle on Blanding Boulevard at Camp Francis Johnson Road, just south of Kingsley Avenue. 

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the traffic deputy was traveling south on his Clay County Sheriff's Office motorcycle when the driver of a pickup truck on northbound Blanding Boulevard attempted to turn left onto Camp Francis Johnson Road.

FHP Sgt. Dylan Bryan said the driver of the Dodge Dakota pickup, which was towing a lawn trailer, failed to yield the right of way to the deputy, causing the motorcycle to collide with the trailer. 

Bryan said the deputy was thrown from the motorcycle. Troopers said Zirbel, 40, was taken to Orange Park Medical Center, where he was in critical condition at last check. 

"We stand with our brothers in blue," Bryan said. "We hope for thoughts and prayers for everyone." 

Sheriff's Office Sgt. Keith Smith fought back tears at a news briefing Sunday afternoon.

"It's a tough time here for members here at the Sheriff's Office. But we're strong, we've been through things before, and when faced with these kinds of things, we grow tighter," Smith told reporters. "We're a big family. What we need you to do now is pray for the family, pray for the officer."

Just days earlier, Smith said he had reached out to Bryan about their agencies working together to crack down on distracted driving. 

"This investigation is in preliminary stages. We don't know what transpired on what occurred. But we talk about that all the time: There is a seriousness to pay attention to what you're doing," Smith said. "It touches home because it's a brother in blue. But the point here is it could be anybody's loved one, that distracted driving happens. You have to pay attention when on these roadways to avoid these kinds of events from taking place. If nothing else, take away from here today the importance of doing that."

There has been an outpouring of support from Northeast Florida law enforcement agencies.

In a statement Sunday evening, the Sheriff's Office thanked the community for its support, saying:

"With thousands of messages being sent, we cannot respond to them all, but we appreciate every one of you, from the bottom of our hearts as we pray for all those involved."

“I pray for them -- his friends and family,” said Joseph Kemper, who lives in Clay County. “Being a part of a company who gives back to fallen heroes, I hope he does very well. I hope he gets up and lives another day to ride again.”

“I want to pray for the officer and I hope everything comes out good,” said Corby Cowart, another Clay County resident.

The Highway Patrol said the driver of the pickup, a 35-year-old Orange Park man, was not injured and remained at the scene to speak with investigators. 

Troopers said debris from the crash hit a third vehicle, but the driver was not injured.

Charges are pending, according to the Highway Patrol. Troopers continue to investigate the crash.