In the ashes of a blaze, a heroic sacrifice remains
Other chemical fires brought a litany of health problems
How the experts reached their conclusions
By Susan Q. Stranahan
and Larry King
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Moose's men had vanished behind a wall of flame.
On the industrial riverbank of Chester, a block-long warehouse roared with explosions and spewed noxious smoke. Fireballs somersaulted through its caving roof.
Inside and out, stacked rows of rusting drums roasted in the heat. They swelled up fat, then blew and hurtled like 55-gallon missiles, spraying foul liquids.
Staggering from the warehouse, retching and gasping for air, came Vincent "Moose" McLaughlin, 38, a tall, rugged fire captain revered by the men he now feared were lost. His throat was scorched raw, his eyes pink and sore, his face and neck flushed with an itchy red rash. He coughed his lungs clear, vomited in the mud, and charged back inside, feeling along a hose line for his cut-off platoon.
He made four or five plunges, all without breathing gear, before he found them, snatching one young apprentice by the coat from an iridescent pool of sludge.
As darkness gathered on Feb. 2, 1978, similar horrors played across the seared grounds of Eastern Rubber Reclaiming Inc., an old rubber-shredding plant beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge.
More than 200 firefighters, police and paramedics had answered the alarm, assuming a tire fire had erupted. Instead, they waded unwarned into one of the worst illegal chemical dumps in the nation – a witches' brew so poisonous that the federal Superfund was born, in part, from it.
The inferno at 1 Flower Street also was the opening scene in a private tragedy still unfolding today.
Disease is decimating the ranks of those who fought the blaze, according to an Inquirer investigation that traced nearly all who had been there. Serious illnesses – cancer, vascular and neuromuscular disorders, kidney failure – have afflicted at least 45, about one in five.
Of those, 28 are dead. Among them is Moose McLaughlin, felled at 48 by thyroid cancer.
Most who fought the fire at the Wade dump, as it became known, have blamed it for that rising toll. Some medical experts now say there is reason for the sick and the bereaved to be angry about the past – and for the healthy to fear the future.
Many chemically induced cancers do not appear for at least 20 years. It has now been 22.
"It's like walking around thinking we're dead men," said George Darbes, a former Chester fireman.
Today, their old field of battle is a barren patch of weeds, marked only by fences and monitoring wells. The cleanup cost millions, most of it pried from private industry by a groundbreaking government lawsuit. Far less went to a few fallen men whose cases against the same waste-producing companies were settled and sealed a decade ago. For the rest of the Wade veterans, there have been only bad memories.
Their unwitting encounter with the toxins grew from the crime and negligence of others who largely went unpunished.
What sparked the fire is still a mystery. What caused it is not: greed.
Since the mid-1970s, the three-acre lot had served as an open-air cesspool for an outlaw trucking firm that hauled hazardous wastes – for as little as half the going rate – from dozens of the region's biggest and best-known companies.
The truckers secretly dumped the chemicals wherever they could: down a well in Upper Merion, Montgomery County; in an abandoned quarry in Eagle, Chester County; in a city-owned landfill near Philadelphia International Airport.
But their favorite spot was along the riverfront in Chester.
Even in a decade when reckless dumping ran rampant, the Wade site was a monstrosity. At least 3 million gallons of cyanide, PCBs, benzene, toluene and other chemicals – some known even then as carcinogens – mingled dangerously.
More than a dozen state and federal environmental agents and at least two Chester officials knew of the dump 10 months before the place blew.
For reasons never explained, no one told the firefighters.
"We didn't know what we were dealing with," McLaughlin said later. It was "one of the worst beatings I ever took."
Within 10 years, he was dead.
By early 1988, at least 21 cancers alone were diagnosed among men who worked the fire or its aftermath – men who were, on average, in their mid-40s. Eleven died. Since then, 18 new cancers have appeared and killed nine more.
"Too many people died for it to be a coincidence," said former firefighter Walt Kokoszka.
The Inquirer has amassed the stories of 207 people – about 90 percent of the emergency personnel sent to the Wade dump. Medical documentation was gathered for nearly all of those who reported serious illness. Epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania then were hired by the newspaper to analyze the data.
Lung cancer hit the group at nearly five times the rate expected in the general population, the analysis showed. Ten men exposed to the fire scene are known to have developed the disease. All are dead.
Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, struck at six times the expected rate. Four men were afflicted, all in unusual spots such as feet, a lower leg, and the underside of a forearm. One died from it.
People who worked closest to the fire were the likeliest to get sick, the analysis showed. So were those who came in direct contact with the chemicals.
Scientifically, an individual case of cancer cannot be linked absolutely to a specific chemical exposure. The study by the Penn epidemiologists, likewise, does not prove that the Wade dump caused the cancers. Yet the likelihood of such statistics occurring by chance is less than 5 percent, those experts said.
There were clusters of other diseases in batches too small for statistical meaning, but strange nonetheless:
Two men who walked side by side collecting chemical samples during the fire died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) within 14 months of each other. Commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS normally afflicts only two people in 25,000.
Multiple sclerosis, a one-in-800 disease in the northern United States, plagues two of the group.
By 1990, three firefighters were on dialysis for kidney failure, a one-in-1,000 condition in the United States. Two have died; the third is seriously ill.
A vast assortment of other malignancies, blood ailments and vascular disorders also have occurred. The list includes four colon cancers, three prostate cancers, two brain cancers, two liver cancers, two kidney cancers, three cases of peripheral vascular disease, and single cases of Hodgkin's disease, aplastic anemia, leukemia, and cancers of the pancreas, esophagus, larynx, thyroid and chest wall.
So many cancers in such a small group "is alarming," said New York epidemiologist James Melius, an expert in firefighting safety and an unpaid consultant to the International Association of Fire Fighters. "This is what you always worry about in these situations. … It's sort of the worst-case scenario."
Studies have shown that firefighters are no more likely to get lung cancer than the general public, said Shelia Zahm, deputy director of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute.
Yet among the Wade group, there is "clearly evidence of an excess risk," said Zahm, who cowrote a health study of 8,000 Philadelphia firefighters that the cancer institute published last July. That could suggest "an unusual chemical exposure … not generally encountered by firefighters."
Another National Cancer Institute researcher was struck by the melanoma rate.
"It's not at all conclusive, but it's interesting and tantalizing," said Margaret Tucker, chief of the institute's genetic epidemiology branch and a melanoma specialist.
There is growing scientific evidence that melanoma, commonly linked to sun exposure and heredity, may also be caused by chemicals. "One could look at this as an eye-opener," said Michael Gochfeld, an environmental medicine specialist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.
More cancers may still appear, Melius warned – and not just among adults who worked the fire. Children from a bordering neighborhood, since bulldozed, played at the dump before and after the blaze.
"Children tend to be more vulnerable to toxic chemicals," said Philip J. Landrigan, director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "They are more heavily exposed because, pound per pound, they breathe much more air than adults, and little kids always have their hands in their mouths."
Doctors should be monitoring all whose paths crossed the Wade dump in the late 1970s, Melius said. "Anybody exposed to that fire ought to be in a medical program."
No program was ever set up for them.
A dream gone bad
The measure of the Wade dump fire goes beyond a statistical reckoning of people fallen ill.
For a blue-collar brotherhood, it was the day that a classic little-boy dream – to be a fireman, a cop, a hero in waiting – turned malevolent. It was a day for which, the men say, no adequate recompense has emerged.
In the 1980s, 18 sick men, or their widows, sued 46 companies whose chemical wastes wound up in the Wade dump. Those cases were settled in Delaware County Court for modest amounts, a median of $31,500.
The companies insisted, as a condition of the settlement, that the judge seal the files and impose a gag order on the plaintiffs. He did so, effectively closing the door on future claims against the firms – and ensuring their goal of "total peace," as one company lawyer put it.
One of the smallest settlements, $10,000, went to Bill Richard. As a 27-year-old paramedic, he worked the Wade fire at least 16 hours. By age 29, he had Hodgkin's disease. "We did everything we could," Richard said of those who served. "In retrospect, nobody gave a crap."
Not the hauler that created the mess, ABM Disposal Service Co.
And certainly not the dump's owner and namesake, Melvin Wade, a Afast-talking, cash-starved Chester businessman – and the only person criminally prosecuted for the disaster.
With his rubber-reclaiming business verging into bankruptcy, Wade had eagerly leased his land to the hauler. In time his employees joined in the dumping, draining drum after drum onto the ground and into the Delaware River, so Wade could sell the empties.
The deliveries went on until the early spring of 1977, when a team of Pennsylvania environmental investigators discovered what lay hidden behind Wade's piles of junk tires: more than 20,000 barrels and 20 tank trucks full of chemicals. Strong solvent vapors, trapped in his cavernous warehouse, betrayed the site's volatility.
Location increased the peril.
Just 100 feet above the dump's western edge, some 13,000 vehicles passed daily across the three-year-old Commodore Barry Bridge.
To the north, a crumbling patch of rental houses teemed with dozens of poor families.
And high over the eastern border loomed one of the largest natural-gas tanks in the eastern United States: a Philadelphia Electric Co. reservoir with a capacity of 10 million cubic feet of fuel.
"If that had gone off, there wouldn't have been much left of Chester," said former city fire marshal Martin "Crash" McKinney.
Yet for 10 months after its discovery, the Wade dump lay unchanged. Although Chester officials were informed of the mess, the word was not passed to those who charged into it that February afternoon.
As Melvin Wade himself once put it: "They went down there like sacrificial lambs."
Race to the waterfront
Station 81 got the call at 3:44 p.m.
Chester's first city-owned firehouse was brand new. It had opened that morning at Third and Tilghman Streets, and equipment was still being shouldered inside.
From the rear door, Capts. Jim McDonald and Bob Friend spotted a column of black smoke over the river. It was only five blocks away, a minute's ride, but by the time Friend arrived, the warehouse was engulfed. He was amazed. What kind of tires were these?
City firefighters hustled to lay hose lines, attacking first from the bridge side. But the Philadelphia Electric flank needed tending; a fire this hot could blow that big tank of gas.
As a general alarm sounded, off-duty city firefighters raced to the waterfront. Members of Chester's five volunteer companies scrambled to their gear, just ahead of fellow "vollies" from nearby Upland.
Teenage boys, from Chester's junior firefighter clubs, flew from homes and classrooms to the Moyamensing firehouse at Ninth and Potter. There they boarded an antiquated fire truck stocked with coffee and sandwiches, and rolled to the blaze alongside the adults.
To veteran firefighters, the destination was familiar. Some had worked tire fires at the rubber plant as far back as the 1940s.
Their noses were first to tell them this one was different. The stench of burning rubber was being cut by waves of other odors: acidy one moment, syrupy sweet the next, then whiffs of sulfur and solvents.
"You could taste it in the air," recalled Chester fireman Ron Williams, now retired. "It didn't smell like rubber – ordinary rubber."
A bold, beloved firefighter
Two miles away in Upland, Moose McLaughlin was hanging a basement door in his two-story Woodside Avenue home. Lending a hand was Jack Gresch, 25, a rookie in McLaughlin's "A" platoon. They were not scheduled in until 6 p.m.
When the first alarm came across their radio, the two men spotted the smoky pillar. The second alarm sent them hurtling toward the river, fetching their gear en route.
Perhaps no Chester firefighter was so respected as McLaughlin, a sunny, stouthearted soul who stood 6-foot-3 and packed 275 pounds.
As a shift captain, he commanded the scene at all fires that broke on his watch. He doubled as a union officer, pounding out contracts and shielding his charges from city bureaucrats. After hours, he hoisted beers with his men, fast with a good-natured needle and a backslap.
No one loved firefighting more.
McLaughlin had haunted the Upland firehouse since early adolescence. At 17, a year underage, he slipped into the volunteer company by forging his mother's signature on a permission slip. He had risen to chief by the time he moved onto Chester's payroll in 1970.
Facing fire, he was bold, his orders plain: Attack it, knock it down, get out. Your partner is your brother; don't ever leave him behind.
"If I was going to a fire, I wanted to go to a fire with him," said Rudy Hollis, a young trainee at the time. "He was a hell of a leader."
And often the first one in.
"Moose would light a cigar and go in while the others were just putting on their air packs," said Upland Fire Chief Dan Kennedy.
McLaughlin's firefighters were fiercely loyal, knowing he would watch their backs, "like they were his kids," said Joe Stanaitis, an Upland volunteer who fought the Wade fire with him. "He was especially protective of us that day."
Blue flames, green smoke
When McLaughlin got there, the waterfront was a cauldron of flames and noise and confusion.
Jim McDonald's "C" platoon was bearing down on the warehouse from the bridge side, where the flames appeared most intense. The men had moved in with handheld hose lines, but still the fire grew. At times, the water seemed to feed the inferno, reacting with whatever substances were burning.
"It was like we were pouring gasoline on it," recalled Roland Lytle, a former Chester firefighter.
Heat and rising flames threatened the Commodore Barry Bridge, and thick, acrid smoke soon made the span impassable. Police Officer John Finnegan hurried to the top to shut it down. With him in the blinding smoke were Tom Pilkington, a reserved corporal in the tactical squad, and Larry Fiorelli, a plain-spoken patrolman. They stayed no more than 10 minutes.
"We decided it was a bad place to be," said Finnegan, now Chester's deputy police commissioner.
Other officers sealed access ramps to the bridge and herded away the onlookers gathering at Melvin Wade's chain-link gate.
It was a riveting show. Bursts of bright yellow, purple and blue mixed with the reds and oranges of conventional fire. Patches of smoke glowed an eerie green.
"It wasn't burning true," Ron Williams said. "The flame caught everybody's eye, the bluish colors."
A command post went up on Flower Street, about 150 yards from the warehouse. Supervisors struggled to impose order as men and machines barreled in helter-skelter.
"We had so many firefighters there, we were like roaches," said Sam McIntyre, a Chester volunteer.
The bridge side was covered, but to the east Philadelphia Electric's gas tank stood exposed. McLaughlin ordered his "A" platoon to protect it, then asked for reinforcements. He got his old compatriots, the Upland vollies.
The firefighters attached a hose line to an aerial ladder, raised it high, and sprayed the big tank.
McLaughlin turned his attention to the warehouse, to a corner entrance on the east side. Some of his men strapped on air packs – heavy, unwieldy contraptions good for maybe 30 minutes in heavy smoke.
"Our job," he later explained, "was to get in and try to contain it."
They headed inside in pairs, one gripping the hose nozzle, the other holding fast to his partner's coat, joined like kids crossing a street.
Jack Gresch and Joe Cliffe lugged a line through one door. When their water hit the barrels, it reacted with a flash bright enough to help them see. Ponds of viscous, yellow-green liquids slopped over the tops of the men's heavy boots, soaking their feet. Flames danced across the liquid sheen.
"We were trying to wade through it," Rudy Hollis said. "I remember we were falling, slipping. … We didn't know what we were stepping in."
McDonald's men, meanwhile, were making their way into the other side of the building.
"We tore down a door; it was pitch-dark inside," Lytle said. "Off in the distance, I saw green, yellow and orange vapors coming from cans and from behind a wall."
Toward the north end, firefighter Larry Platt saw barrels labeled with skulls and crossbones. "I went out and told Jim McDonald we had to put people in packs in there; this wasn't a good deal," Platt said.
With too few packs to go around, some men entered anyway – mostly the veterans.
"Back then," George Darbes said, "there was this macho thing among the older guys: `You've got to get in there and eat some smoke, kid.' "
But old-school bravado was no match for what was trapped inside. No one could see or breathe. Three firefighters mounted the roof and chopped a 4-by-8-foot hole to vent the building.
The smoke cleared a little. Then the explosions began.
"We just hit the ground"
Word spread fast of the raging fire in Chester.
Reporters and TV crews headed to the river. City officials and residents milled along the police lines.
David Chakrabarty, the Chester health officer, was at a social gathering when he heard. He had been at the dump 10 months earlier, when state environmental agents served a search warrant on Melvin Wade. Knowing the dangers better than anyone at the fire, he tore off to the scene in his coat and tie.
As the crowd grew, hot drums began bursting in the warehouse.
To those outside, the concussions were muffled. Inside, they were ear-shattering.
"We just hit the ground," said Jim Dibardino, a Chester volunteer. "It was like artillery going off."
Moose McLaughlin rushed into the warehouse to check on his men.
"There were 55-gallon drums in there flying through the air like beer cans exploding, splashing," he said later. "I saw them hit guys and knock them down."
Around 5 p.m., a mighty blast rumbled up from deep inside the warehouse. A huge orange fireball belched out of an elevator shaft, rolling higher than the bridge.
The sagging roof slowly yawned open. Barrels were falling. The regulator on Jack Gresch's air pack exploded. A steel plate fell across the hose line he and Joe Cliffe held, pinching off their water flow.
Crawling on hands and knees, Gresch read the label on a drum beside him: "Cyanide."
Explosions were everywhere now, even outside.
"There were barrels going 50, 60 feet in the air," said Jim Nickerson, a Chester police officer.
One drum whizzed past McDonald and dented the fender of Engine 8, near the bridge. Captains hollered to their troops to pull back; the building was too dangerous.
McLaughlin couldn't locate all of his men. The toppling barrels had cut off at least four of them. He plunged into the acrid smoke.
"They were my men. It was my responsibility," he explained later. "I sent them in there, so I felt it was my job to get them out."
With no air pack, he searched with his head low, "just biting along the floor," as he put it, "to get air." He stayed until nauseated, then stumbled out gasping.
"It just felt like the inside of your throat was on fire. … ," he said. "I went outside. When I purged my lungs, I threw up. I went back in again because at this point we didn't know whether those guys were dead, alive, or what."
They were alive, but overpowered.
Rudy Hollis felt his partner tugging hard on his jacket. He heard a voice yelling for them to get out.
They began to back away, but Hollis kept falling. He was down in the muck, the chemicals washing over him, when a strong hand yanked him up by the collar.
Moose had found them.
With darkness falling and the building beyond salvage, the firefighters pulled back, switching to a tactic called "surround and drown."
Deluge guns – big, stationary lines that can shoot 1,000 gallons per minute – started pounding the warehouse from a safer distance.
The explosions stopped, but other perils emerged.
The grounds were icy and saturated. Ed Diggins, an "A" platoon firefighter, fell and hurt both wrists. As his buddies helped him away, they noticed Diggins' black protective gear taking on a plum hue.
"We got worried," said Joe Cliffe, now Chester's fire commissioner.
The chemicals were not only discoloring the gear but dissolving it. City firefighter Bill Suter's new bunker pants "were eaten up to the boots," Suter said.
The men's bodies were reacting as well.
Some struggled to catch their breath. Some complained of raw throats and nausea, of chest pains and burning eyes. Some clawed at patches of exposed skin.
"It was little bumps on your skin, about the size of measle bumps, and they burned," said Clarence Banks, then 16, a junior firefighter who slogged across the sodden grounds delivering coffee to the troops.
"Little things were starting to creep up on people," said Thomas Johnson, a Chester vollie who had been in the warehouse. "I had broken out in hives all across my back and shoulders, large hives all over."
By nightfall, all but a few had received the order to pull back.
Near the river, by a fence beneath the bridge, Michael Abbott and three other city firefighters stood atop a pile of tires and sprayed the warehouse. None wore air packs. They were there three or four hours when a firefighter came by and yelled, "`You've got to get out of here; you breathe this stuff and you're dead,' " Abbott recalled.
Retreating firefighters were hosed off in the freezing air. But the dousing did not ease the itching and tingling that was spreading over Rudy Hollis' skin. The rookie struggled to breathe.
"Something ain't right," he complained as he made his way across the grounds to Flower Street and a line of idling ambulances. One was manned by an old high school classmate, paramedic Don Tees.
The rear of the ambulance filled with smoke as Tees checked the lungs and blood pressure of men still dripping chemicals. He wore no mask or gloves and, with the heater blasting, shed his secondhand fireman's coat.
More than 40 firefighters were taken to Sacred Heart Hospital or Crozer-Chester Medical Center. Most were washed, given oxygen, and monitored for several hours. Two were admitted with heart or blood pressure problems.
Only 2,600 of the more than 20,000 drums that had been stacked at the dump survived intact. Chemicals streamed across the grounds. Health officer Chakrabarty, his clothes soaked, wanted to get samples before they became diluted.
He summoned two police officers, Tom Pilkington and Jim Nickerson. Wearing rubber gloves from the ambulance crews, the three stepped inside the gate and filled glass tubes with the odd-colored runoff.
"Some of it was red, like blood; some blue and green," Nickerson said. Chakrabarty "wanted to find out what we were dealing with. So we went in and got the stuff."
A few men got home in time to watch the fire on the late news. Others straggled in from hospitals, minus their soggy, reeking clothes.
Junior firefighter Clarence Banks walked into his house around 3 a.m., wearing a bedsheet and paper hospital booties. His mother was up, fussing.
"What happened to you?" he recalled her asking.
"We had to burn our clothes."
In the city's West End, volunteer firefighter Bernie "Stump" Swanson came through his door after dawn, muttering of the "ungodly mess" he had witnessed.
"I'm just glad you weren't down there," he told his wife, Mary, an ambulance worker. "You wouldn't believe the amount of junk that was down there."
Dozens had stayed at the dump through the night, smothering hot spots with high-expansion foam. McLaughlin, McDonald and most of their men logged at least 20 hours.
Some still there were teenagers, thrilled to be working their first big blaze. While most junior firefighters served coffee and sandwiches, Mark Zukowski had waded in, without an air pack, beside the adults.
By the time he got home that morning, his mother had baked a cake for his 19th birthday. Zukowski rang the bell and asked for a big plastic bag. He needed to throw out his clothes.
"Mark returned home exhausted," Clara Zukowski later wrote in a letter. "However, he was still full of things to say about his exciting day, like barrels exploding, huge flames."
It was late afternoon before Judy McLaughlin spotted her husband, Moose, outside the back door, stripping off his clothes.
"Don't go near 'em," he barked. "Get me a couple of trash bags and don't come out here."
"Hon, your brand new shoes!"
"They're shoes no longer!" Moose hollered back. He stuffed every stitch into the bags, set them aside, and headed up the stairs to shower.
"Keep the kids away from me," he called over his shoulder. "I have no idea what I have on my skin."
"Was he there?"
A few weeks later, Stump Swanson started with a harsh cough. Mary Swanson blamed cigarettes; he'd smoked a pack a day for years.
Within several months he was coughing so hard he was rupturing blood vessels. On Nov. 15, 1979, doctors at Crozer-Chester Medical Center diagnosed lung cancer.
Ten days later, he died in his hospital room, slumped over a trash can filled with blood. He was 42.
Stump Swanson's gruesome end had come less than two years after the Wade fire. It was the start of what looked, for a while, like a run of very bad luck among those who had been there.
The summer after Swanson died, paramedic Bill Richard developed Hodgkin's disease at age 29.
Firefighter Rudy Hollis survived the blazing warehouse only to have his kidneys shut down five years later, leaving him homebound and needing a transplant.
Paramedic Don Tees, who had treated Hollis at the fire, was stricken by a brain tumor a decade after the blaze at age 38. A father of three, he remains prone to seizures and unable to work.
Larry Fiorelli, one of the patrolmen on the bridge, died of leukemia in 1986, two days after his 40th birthday.
Health Director Dave Chakrabarty and Police Officer Tom Pilkington, who had walked the grounds together collecting chemical samples, died of Lou Gehrig's disease within 14 months of each other.
Fire Capts. Moose McLaughlin and Jim McDonald fell to cancer.
Mark Zukowski, the junior firefighter who had done a man's job at the dump fire, died at 34 of throat cancer. Clarence Banks, sent home in a bedsheet at age 16, lives in a nursing home, the victim at 38 of a stroke brought on by a brain tumor.
At least three dozen other Wade veterans have faced illnesses that can kill – and often have. Many came to believe that the bad luck they share began 22 years ago, at 1 Flower Street.
"As people got sick, my question would always be, `Was he there?' " said Chester Fire Capt. John Matwiejewicz.
"The answer was inevitably yes."
Contact Susan Q. Stranahan at 610-313-8027, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Larry King at 610-313-8111, or email@example.com.
Dan Hardy of the Inquirer suburban staff contributed to this article.