Wash. city council agrees to pay widow of fallen firefighter $750,000
Neil Carlberg was a Bellingham firefighter for 33 years, retired in 2011 and died of esophageal cancer in 2018
By Robert Mittendorf
The Bellingham Herald
BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Bellingham has settled an occupational disease lawsuit with the wife of a former firefighter.
City Council members unanimously agreed Monday, Feb. 12, to pay Sheila Hanlon, wife of the late Neil Carlberg, a total of $750,000 in her claim against the city to receive his pension.
"This has been a really long case for the city, and for the widow. I think it's been very difficult, and so hopefully with this settlement, Miss Hanlon hopefully can go forward and heal with her husband's memory," Councilwoman Lisa Anderson said as the agreement was discussed in the City Council meeting.
"You can never put this behind you but perhaps the litigation part can be put behind her and she can go forward and hopefully heal from the process," Anderson said.
Carlberg, who was a Bellingham firefighter for 33 years, retired in 2011 and died of esophageal cancer in 2018.
Hanlon had sought to prove that her husband's cancer was work-related, and that he deserved benefits and honors that are reserved for firefighters who are killed in the line of duty.
Hanlon, a former Fire Department dispatcher, asked The Bellingham Herald for privacy after the settlement was announced, and didn't want to comment for this story.
Carlberg finished his career as a driver/engineer at Station 2 in Fairhaven.
"Neil was a good firefighter," said Bellingham firefighter Todd Lagestee.
"We learn more and more every day how many cancer-causing aspects there are to the job of being a firefighter," he told The Bellingham-Herald. "From sleep disruptions, to acute and chronic stress, to PFAS ("forever chemicals") actually being in our fire gear — not to mention smoke exposure and absorption through our skin and diesel exhaust. Cancer is a deadly epidemic for firefighters."
Washington state law presumes that certain cancers are a result of the work that firefighters perform in and around burning buildings and encountering hazardous chemicals in a variety of situations.
Studies have shown that firefighters face a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths compared to the general U.S. population, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
John Swobody of North Whatcom Fire and Rescue died in 2018 of lung cancer, and his line of duty death designation meant that his treatment costs were covered and he was awarded posthumous honors. His survivors also received extra benefits.
This story was originally published February 19, 2023, 5:00 AM.
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