On appeal from final determination of Board of Trustees, Police and Fireman's Retirement System.
Lora, Seidman and Milmed. The opinion of the court was delivered by Seidman, J.A.D.
Carmen Iannelli, a 50-year-old fire-fighter employed by the Camden Fire Department since 1953, died suddenly on June 5, 1975 after participating in the fighting of a fire. His widow filed an application for accidental death pension benefits with the Police and Firemen's Retirement System under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-10. The board of trustees of the system denied her application. She appealed, whereupon an administrative hearing was held, following which the hearing officer recommended that the decision of the board of trustees denying the application be affirmed, essentially upon findings that "[t]he work effort of June 4th and 5th, 1975 involved no injury by external force or violence," and "[d]eath resulted from work effort alone." The board of trustees adopted the recommendation and rejected the claim. This appeal ensued.
The issue is whether decedent's death after prolonged exposure on the night in question to smoke and fumes from burning bales of paper in an open area adjacent to a warehouse
resulted from an "accident" within the purview of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-10.*fn1 In determining this question we apply the judicial guidelines for "traumatic event," the term appearing in accidental disability retirement statutes,*fn2 which has been equated with the word "accident" in death benefit statutes. Russo v. Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund , 62 N.J. 142, 152-153 (1973).
On the evening of June 4, 1975, at about 8:30 o'clock, the deceased proceeded with his unit to the scene of the fire in response to a second alarm. After deploying the hoses he and other firemen ascended the roof of the warehouse from which place they directed water onto the burning bales of paper. The acting captain of the unit described the conditions which existed: "there was a lot of smoke," "most of the time it was just black smoke,:" "[t]he wind was blowing against us," "[w]e were eating smoke all the time," "it was very intense."
After about a half-hour, the unit moved to another location, where the wind again blew smoke toward them. They remained in the area for four to five hours, during which the deceased walked around close to the heat and the smoke, directing a hose on the various "perimeter fires."
Upon their return to the firehouse, at about 1:45 A.M., the firemen proceeded to stretch out the hoses in order to
wash them down. As the deceased was unrolling a hose he suddenly collapsed. He had not complained that evening about his health or physical condition. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.
An autopsy disclosed the cause of death to be "acute pulmonary congestion and edema due to idiopathic [unknown] cardiomyopathy." The medical examiner reported that "This is a natural cause of death and persons with this type of heart disease*fn3 are subject to sudden death under a wide variety of circumstances, it appears likely that the vigorous exertion which Mr. Iannelli was subjected in performing his duties on that day played a role in precipitating his death." However, according to the deceased's widow, he had no prior history of heart disease or any other significant medical problem. In addition, a note was produced at the hearing from the deceased's personal physician, who had been treating him since 1971, in which he stated that during that time the deceased "had not once complained of, had any symptoms of, or was treated in any way, shape or form for a cardiac condition."
Appellant's expert was Dr. Dominick D. Davalos, a board-eligible cardiologist who described himself as actively involved in health problems of special occupational groups, including firefighters. His testimony was by deposition. He expressed the opinion, based upon a hypothetical question containing the essential facts and his review of the pertinent documents and records, that "Mr. Ianelli died of heart and lung damage that resulted from exposure to a number of toxic environmental conditions and toxic gases ...