CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – A Clay County deputy critically injured Sunday in a motorcycle crash had been seriously injured on duty before, News4Jax has learned.
Deputy Ben Zirbel was in a crash Sunday morning at Blanding Boulevard and Camp Francis Johnson Road. The Florida Highway Patrol said a man pulling a lawn trailer did not yield the right of way, and Zirbel’s motorcycle crashed into the trailer, throwing him off the bike.
Records show Zirbel, who has been on the force for 12 years, was previously hospitalized in 2015, when he lost control of his motorcycle while pursuing a speeding car and crashed into a ditch.
A former neighbor said Zirbel's wife didn't want him to return to the Clay County Sheriff's Office motor unit, but he did anyway. The couple have an 8-year-old son who just started third grade.
Katherine Heatherly used to live next to Zirbel's family and could not speak highly enough of their kindness.
“We are his elder neighbors, and he was always checking on us during the storm. He and his wife came over -- we had limbs everywhere. They were the ones picking up for us and doing some things for us,” Heatherly said. “He’s the kindest most wonderful neighbor and police officer. He loved his job. He loved his family.”
Zirbel remains in critical condition at Orange Park Medical Center.
Heatherly's daughter, Lusanne Thompson, said it's terrible seeing something like this happen again to a deputy who loved his work.
“I know his wife is just devastated. It’s just awful news,” Lusanne Thompson said. “I can’t believe it. I just pray for the family and hope he recovers.”
That's the hope of Zirbel's colleagues, as well, as they try to take care of one of their own. A deputy is at the hospital at all times comforting Zirbel's family, and the Sheriff’s Office has a meal train for them.
People in Clay County gathered Tuesday morning to show their support for the Sheriff's Office at Clay County's Coffee with a Cop event, designed to build stronger relationships between deputies and the community they serve.
Residents rallied behind their heroes in blue at the Gate station near U.S. 17 in Fleming Island, bringing an outpouring of support for Zirbel.
“What they do is a really important job and is a really hard job and that brings it home,” resident Don Bledsole said.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Chris Padgett said the outpouring of thoughts and prayers touches each and every deputy, as well as Zirbel's family.
“With everything we’ve got going on, to know that our community truly stands behind us, it means the world to us,” Padgett said.
A VyStar Credit Union account has been set up for Zirbel and his family. The account number is 7507565803 and donations can be made at any branch.
A GoFundMe page was also created Tuesday.