One Year After, Fricker Fire Leaves Legacy of Ordinances
Shelley J. Odom doesn’t have garage sales often. Matter of fact, this weekend’s sale outside her Anaheim home is the first since the one she had exactly one year ago. But that sale was interrupted.
The smell was too strong to take. The air was “too thick,” she said. And her arms were itching. Every part of her body that was exposed began to itch. The garage sale was off.
Nearby, firefighters were battling what soon became known as Orange County’s worst hazardous materials accident.
Today’s one-year anniversary of the three-day fire at the Larry Fricker Co., an agricultural pesticides and fertilizer warehouse in Anaheim, has not gone by unnoticed--not by local, county or state officials who have since taken steps to beef up laws regarding hazardous materials, or by attorneys who have flocked in with lawsuits, and certainly not by many of the residents who were forced out of their homes during evacuations.
“I knew it yesterday. I was going through my garage and cleaning stuff out and thought, ‘Oh, my God. It’s a year tomorrow. I hope it doesn’t end up in a disaster,” Odom said Saturday. “We haven’t forgotten. We haven’t forgotten at all.”
A year ago this weekend, the first of about 7,500 people--residents and employees of businesses in the area--were ordered out of parts of Anaheim, Placentia and Fullerton.
The fire, the work of an arsonist, began late on a Saturday night, June 21, and released more than 80 different chemicals into the air, including the deadly organophosphates, ammonium nitrate and methyl bromide stored in the warehouse.
Without an inventory of the chemicals, firefighters had a tough time battling the blaze. About 20 residents, including four firefighters, were treated and reased for minor injuries incurred in breathing the toxic vapors or making contact with the chemicals. Many others, however, later complained of boils, rashes and other ailments.
Like other evacuees, Odom, once allowed back into her home, diligently set out to wash linens, dishes and window screens, and to remove what she called “a white sticky film” that covered everything and “bubbled” when washed off. She also dug up her vegetable garden, with its green beans and tomatoes, and threw the vegetables away.
A month later, with her son suffering from a sore throat that a doctor described as a chemical burn, her mother aching from burn patches on her arms, shoulders and neck, and herself sore from blisters, Odom became one of the leaders of CATS (Citizens Against Toxic Substances).
CATS members marched in protest, signed petitions and wrote letters. In neighboring Placentia, other residents also gathered at the urging of one citizen who said she was about to sue the city and Fricker. They, too, were worried about the chemical fire’s long-term effects. And they, too, urged city officials to keep Fricker shut down.
Now the groups have disbanded. Fricker reopened its rebuilt office on State College Boulevard in March but has been operating from its warehouses in both Anaheim and San Diego since last August, co-owner Paul Etzold said. Business is back to normal, Etzold said. “Basically, we’re operating the same as we did then,” Etzold said. There is, however, a new addition to the business: a smoke, burglary and fire alarm system.
There is also a new addition to Orange County’s laws: an ordinance requiring companies to disclose the hazardous materials they handle so that firefighters will know what confronts them in case of an emergency.
The hazardous materials disclosure ordinance adopted last October by the Board of Supervisors is not necessarily the product of the Fricker fire, but probably was pushed into law quicker in its aftermath, several county officials said.
All 10 cities that contract with the Orange County Fire Department have adopted a disclosure ordinance and at least seven of the county’s other 16 cities have followed suit, with the rest planning to do so, said Karen Peters, senior staff analyst with the county’s hazardous materials program.
Within the next six to eight months, all counties in California will have similar laws if a bill by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) is approved, said Frederick Lercari, chief of the hazardous materials section in the Sacramento-based Office of Emergency Services. The current bill under review would change deadlines of a disclosure law introduced by Waters and approved last year by state legislators.
While the fire has prompted legal reforms, most of the Fricker-related lawsuits have gone nowhere.
At one point, the well-known San Francisco-based Melvin Belli law firm filed a $100-million class-action suit against Fricker and the City of Anaheim. That suit was later dropped in exchange for a new round of smaller lawsuits, and now all of Belli’s legal actions have been dropped, a spokeswoman for the firm said.
Anaheim resident Richard Will, 58, who said he still suffers from respiratory and other serious ailments he attributes to the toxic fumes from the Fricker fire, still has a lawsuit pending against the Anaheim company. Will blames the toxic fire for his cardiac arrest a year ago. And headaches, dizzy spells, a damaged liver and lungs--among other problems he said he did not face prior to the fire--now keep him visiting doctors frequently, he said.
Suits to Be Dropped
Peter C. Freeman, an attorney for Fricker, said he expects Will’s lawsuit and any others pending will be dismissed because “there just isn’t any merit to any of them.”
One lawsuit that is not disappearing is a $1.6-million action filed by the county in February, 1985. It involved a chemical spill in Tustin. Fricker is accused of illegally handling and disposing of toxic materials on its Tustin property, in violation of state Hazardous Waste Control law, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Diane Stavengahen Kadletz.
The firm was not insured at the time of the fire.
Will is no longer suing the cities of Anaheim, Placentia and Fullerton because of immunity granted to the cities but plans to pursue his suit against Fricker, said James B. James, Will’s attorney.
Many residents sued Placentia, Fullerton and Huntington Beach in addition to Anaheim because firefighters from those cities also responded to the disaster. By the September deadline last year--the last day to file claims regarding the Fricker fire--the four cities reported 365 claims against them.
Should Have Known
Critics of city leaders said Anaheim officials should have known ahead of time what was stored in the warehouse, and, in fact, were negligent for failing to inspect the warehouse and have an inventory of materials.
Said Anaheim Fire Chief Darrell Hartshorn: “Monday morning quarterbacks never make any mistakes. It’s very easy to criticize. But yes, the city was doing everything it could.”
Shortly after the fire, talk of “suing” was common. But after a while, the excitement died down, said Robert Von Esch Jr., Fullerton Chamber of Commerce president who, in his role as attorney, heard from three or four businesses irate at local government for the inconvenience and loss of revenue from closing shop for a couple of days.
Fullerton city officials decided not to conduct a survey of businesses in their city asking what losses were suffered and whether they needed federal assistance--citing cumbersome time-consuming questionnaires.
Total Loss of $416,000
From the 66 businesses in Anaheim and Placentia that did respond to surveys, a total loss of $416,000 was tabulated, said Paul M. Hess, Orange County Fire Department emergency management division manager. But the companies were turned down for loans from the Small Business Administration because there was no actual damage and the overall economic impact did not justify the agency “coming down and setting up an assistance center,” Hess said.
The push for disclosure ordinances has been more successful.
In Anaheim, about 1,500 businesses have responded to 2,994 mailers asking what chemicals they store, their quantity and their location, among other questions, Hartshorn said. Final storing of data in a computer system could take a couple of years, Hartshorn said, but by January, “we should be in pretty good shape.”
County officials also are in the process of implementing the disclosure ordinance. In the next two to three years, the Fire Department expects to maintain all relevant information on a computer system that will allow firefighters to call up such information as a building’s contents, number of personnel and exit locations by merely punching an address into a computer, said Sylvan D. Hersh, Fire Department hazardous materials program manager.
The county is taking other steps, said Carolyn J. Wells, a county emergency management division program coordinator.
By the end of July, for example, the county should have available brochures and handouts on evacuations, re-entry and the handling of pets during an emergency.