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Procession salutes 'one-of-a-kind' fallen Clay County deputy

Deputy Ben Zirbel died after hitting vehicle that pulled into his path

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – Flags, flashing lights and flowers.

It was a somber day in Clay County as residents lined Blanding Boulevard to salute a deputy who died in the line of duty.

Deputy Ben Zirbel, a father, friend and 12-year Sheriff's Office veteran, suffered what proved to be fatal injuries in a crash Sunday while on traffic patrol.

His remains were carried in an ambulance Friday from the Medical Examiner's Office in Jacksonville to a Lake Asbury funeral home. He was surrounded by fellow motormen and a lengthy honor procession as residents waved flags along the roadsides.

PHOTOS: Paying respects during Deputy Ben Zirbel's procession
WATCH: Sheriff Daniels, deputies salute flag-draped casket

Zirbel's department-issued motorcycle struck a vehicle and trailer Sunday at the intersection of Blanding Boulevard and Camp Francis Johnson Road. The deputy died two days later.

The spot on Blanding Boulevard where Zirbel's service in uniform ended became a memorial Friday. His honor procession paused there briefly to allow his wife, his 8-year-old son and other loved ones to step out of their vehicles and lay flowers around a "Drive Safely" marker.

Zirbel's colleagues saluted and onlookers stood with their hands over their hearts during the poignant moment.

When Zirbel's remains were carried into the Russell Haven of Rest funeral home in a flag-draped coffin, some cried and others saluted in silence.

Many hearts were touched by Zirbel's unexpected death, and even those who did not know him felt the loss and the love that was evident during Friday's procession.

Those watching said they hope Zirbel's wife and son know that the community is here for them.

“Bless his family. I want them to know how much we appreciate it. I want his wife to know how much we appreciate (his sacrifice),” Lori Grosdidier said. “I’ve been praying for them since Sunday.”

Cynthia Rankin said Zirbel was her children’s resource officer before he joined the motor unit. She said when she realized the connection it took her breath away.

“He had a great sense of humor,” Rankin said. “He would do anything for the kids. He was one-of-a-kind. He really was.”

Omron Wallicada had similar memories of Zirbel, who talked to him in passing a couple of times.

"He was an upbeat guy. He was really cool to talk to, and I heard the news and I was hoping and hoping he would make it," Wallicada said. "Because I have so much respect for these men and women who keep us safe, I felt obligated to come out here and pay my respects to him."

Many people watching said Zirbel’s death is a reminder of just how dangerous the job of law enforcement is.

His wife said this week that she was comforted in her grief with the knowledge that even in death, Zirbel was serving others because he was a registered organ donor.

Gov. Rick Scott ordered Friday that flags be flown at half-staff Saturday in Clay County and at the State Capitol to honor Zirbel.

The funeral for Zirbel will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Luke’s Catholic Church, 1606 Blanding Blvd., in Middleburg. The service will be open to the public, but there will be very limited seating.

There will not be a viewing or graveside service. The Clay County Sheriff's Office Honor Guard ceremony will take place immediately after the funeral in the church parking lot.

News4Jax.com will provide a livestream of the service for those who cannot attend.

An account at VyStar Credit Union (#7507565803) and a GoFundMe account were set up for those who would like to donate to Zirbel's family. 

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Deputies from Clay County and surrounding agencies salute as Deputy Zirbel's body is transferred into a rescue unit for transport to the funeral home.


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