A retired Orange County firefighter is walking more than 650 miles to get the attention of Florida lawmakers, who he is pushing to pass a bill supporting presumptive cancer in first responders.
By the time Tom “Bull” Hill had walked across the city limits of Ocoee and into Winter Garden, he had met the widows of two Ocoee firefighters and received touching mementos preserving the memories their husbands.
Charlene Kelley presented a prayer card for James Kelley, who died of thyroid cancer in February, as well as a window sticker depicting angel wings on a fire helmet with James’s station and engine number, 25.
Cathi Greenhill provided an Ocoee Fire Department belt buckle for Kevin Greenhill, who died in 2016, within a year after his retirement.
Hill, a Groveland resident and retired Orange County firefighter, set out on foot March 20 with the expectation of walking solo from Key West to Tallahassee. At the beginning of this journey, it was just one man on a quest to fulfill the wishes of two dying friends to see a presumptive cancer law passed for firefighters.
Five weeks later, Hill is still walking, averaging 15 miles a day — but he has developed an entourage of firefighters and other citizens who are making sure he knows he isn’t alone in his fight.
He has had as many as 200 walking alongside him as the group makes its way up major highways, including West Colonial Drive from Orlando heading west through Ocoee, Winter Garden and Oakland and into Lake County. Each of the departments is providing at least one fire truck to lead a portion of the walk as it goes through the city.
On Friday, April 20, Bull and his dedicated group of walkers arrived in Winter Garden at lunchtime and were fed by 4 Rivers Smokehouse.
Charlene Kelley, who buried her husband just two months ago, hopes the walk will make a difference.
“It was such an honor and privilege to meet him,” Charlene Kelley said. “This is important because, hopefully, it’ll make a difference for the other firefighters (so they) won’t have to go through what my husband, James Kelley, or Kevin Greenhill went through and something can be done before it’s too late.”
Winter Garden Fire Chief Matt McGrew presented two helmet shields to Hill in memory of Stewart T. Baker, who died of a massive heart attack while fighting a Tildenville fire in 1981, and Omar Martinez, who died in 2009 of a heart attack just after finishing a shift. Hill said it broke his heart to be given those.
He has added these to the other helmet shields, patches and nametags of fallen firefighters he has received.
He has been handed the precious ashes of several firefighters and asked to carry them with him, too.
The walk started with one backpack and has grown to four plus a hydration pack. The men and women joining in the walk are taking turns sharing the burden of carrying the bags.
Hill, 58, has a Facebook page called My Brothers’ Burden Walk that keep people informed of his walk, which has been nicknamed the March of the Bull. He shares live messages daily, including his location and how far he walked, and he gives kudos to folks who walked with him and fire stations that helped him along the way.
Fellow firefighters are keeping him well fed and allowing him to bunk at their stations for some much-needed rest each night.
Every day, Hill reads from lists of fallen firefighters given to him as he walks through each jurisdiction. The list numbers more than 600 already, and he’s only halfway through his journey to the Panhandle.
As Hill’s friend and colleague, Orange County Fire Department Engineer Stephen “Shakey” Vanravenswaay, lay dying of cancer, he told Hill he wasn’t afraid to die but was ashamed that he couldn’t better provide for his family after his death. His promise to his buddy, Shakey, and another dying firefighter, John “J.P.” Perez, would manifest itself in a 650-mile walk through the state of Florida.
Hill said the walk was prompted by Perez, who said to him, “Bull, if you walk, I truly believe something big will happen.”
His goal is to capture the attention of lawmakers with his message in hopes of prompting new laws that will give Florida firefighters the same benefits as those in other states. Firefighters die of cancer at a higher rate than the general public, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A presumptive cancer law makes firefighters eligible for benefits based on the presumption that their occupation was the cause of certain types of cancer.
About a dozen states, including Florida, do not have a presumptive cancer law.