Grieving family members of a firefighting pilot killed in 2008 claim Cal Fire knowingly withheld death benefits to them.
Fourteen families of contracted air tanker pilots killed in the line of duty are seeking more than $4 million from Cal Fire. The claim filed Saturday says the agency never paid the family members death benefits.
Zachary VanderGriend is 25 years old in this photo. Family members say it’s the last photo he’d ever take from the cockpit of his air tanker.
“Every time he would say, ‘Mom, these people are losing everything. I have to go.’ And I don’t know if he knew. On September 1st our family lost everything,” said Marci VanderGriend, Zachary’s mother.
Seven years ago in September, VanderGriend was killed when his air tanker crashed seconds after takeoff. He was on his way to fight a fire in Yosemite. Two other crew members also died in the crash.
“I’ve seen and I’ve learned what these families have gone through, and it’s gut-wrenching,” said attorney Paul Goyette.
Goyette is representing the VanderGriends and 13 other families of fallen pilots who say they’ve been robbed of what’s rightfully theirs.
“Why wouldn’t you help a family then? If you had it in your power to help a family, why wouldn’t you do that?” said Marci VanderGriend.
The claim filed Saturday suggests families didn’t get the same death benefits as other firefighters because the pilots were contracted by Cal Fire. Goyette says federal death benefits exclude contractors, but there is a state law that says the agency in turn has to pay the families.
“They might want to know about that. They might want to apply for those benefits that might help them,” said Goyette.
Cal Fire gave Action News this statement:
While we have not formally received the complaint, we have been working on benefits for Pilot Craig Hunt since the time of his crash and we have been reviewing records to ensure that past CAL FIRE contracted pilots have also received these benefits. We are also advocating for the payment of federal benefits to federally contracted pilots.
The VanderGriends say reopening their wounds are difficult, but they’re willing to do it to help other grieving families.
“I know for our family it’s not about the money. Honestly, it’s not about the money; it’s about justice,” said Andriana VanderGriend, Zachary’s sister.
Once Cal Fire gets the claim, they have 45 days to respond, or the families can take this case to court and sue Cal Fire.