Health Study of ’71 Chemical Blaze Sought : Hazardous materials: Two firefighters who responded to the Camarillo fire have since died of cancer. Others are ill. It’s not known whether a link exists.
In June of 1971, 75 firemen rushed to battle flames at a burning chemical plant in Camarillo, where they found a wooden building ablaze and pungent chemical vapors hanging thick in the air.
Twenty years later, two of the men who were called to the A-1 Chemical fire have since died of cancer in their 50s. Four middle-aged men are ill with tumors or other chronic ailments. Other firefighters or fire investigators have suffered seizures or strokes.
The emerging pattern of illnesses in these middle-aged men has prompted calls within the Ventura County Fire Department for a formal epidemiological study to determine if the maladies are linked to the A-1 Chemical fire.
“We’re going to research it to the extent we can,” Fire Chief George Lund said. He plans to ask the Ventura County Board of Supervisors to authorize $25,000 for the study.
“We’re real concerned about that (A-1 Chemical fire) call and how our people have been affected,” he said. “And that was just one of the many calls over the years when our people have been exposed to hazardous materials.”
If the medical study establishes a link, department doctors will know to watch for early symptoms of cancer in annual checkups, offering a much better chance of arresting any cancers before they become fatal.
It could also provide widows evidence that their husbands’ deaths were work-related and allow them to apply for increases in benefits.
The A-1 Chemical fire unleashed a toxic cloud of chemicals that included methyl ethyl ketone, toluene, thrichloroethane, methylene chloride, sulfuric acid and others. Some of these chemicals are suspected to cause cancer; others can damage the heart, liver or central nervous system.
It came at a time when fire departments did not fully understand the long-term health effects of toxic chemicals. As a result, some of the firemen battled the flames from outside without protective gear and oxygen masks that are now standard issue. Those who entered the building wore breathing masks that did not create an airtight seal.
The move in Ventura County to study whether the A-1 Chemical fire caused illnesses represents one in a growing number of such studies throughout the state, said Kim Mueller, health and safety director of the California Firefighter Foundation, which represents 17,000 members statewide.
By far, she said, the majority of cases such as the A-1 Chemical fire are still treated as individual workers compensation claims, requiring firefighters and their attorneys to prove in court that disabilities are job-related.
But more and more, Mueller said, fire departments are heeding the pleas of their employees to look for reasons why otherwise healthy and fit men and women should fall seriously ill.
“It’s still fairly rare that a department would initiate a study,” Mueller said. “But there is an increasing awareness in the departments.”
Ventura County Deputy Fire Chief Robert F. Holaway said the department’s study will either link the chemical fire to the illnesses or put the question to rest. “If there is nothing to it, then we’ll take a fear that’s out there and do away with it,” he said.
But firefighters say most people in the department believe that the fire caused the deaths and illnesses, and they fear that more are yet to come.
“At the time the first man died 10 years ago, you start thinking maybe it was connected to A-1,” said Don Ellis, a retired division chief who was in charge of firefighting teams at the A-1 Chemical plant. “But when the second man died, you think, ‘Yes, it is connected.’ Now there is no doubt in my mind at all.”
Ellis, who retired with a heart ailment at age 55 after 35 years with the department, said he still wonders at times whether he did the right thing by having his men fight the fire instead of standing back and allowing it to burn.
“But in those days, that wasn’t the thing to do,” he said. “You stayed there and you toughed it out. You didn’t have the knowledge that you do today to know that it would kill people 20 years later.”
Ellis said all the men who went into the burning building wore oxygen masks and air tanks. But the masks were not airtight, and there were no replacement masks, he said. Also, the men who fought the fire from the street outside the building had no masks.
“Today, everybody on a fire like that would have had masks or they wouldn’t have been there,” he said. “But in those days, we thought we were tougher than most everybody so we could take the smoke.
“We may have been tougher, but we weren’t smarter.”
Of the A-1 Chemical firefighters, Dewey Mosley was the first to die of cancer nearly a decade ago. David Gutierrez died of cancer in August at age 54. His death prompted Ellis to ask himself what he should have done differently at the fire.
“But I just have to tell myself to knock that off,” he said. “To keep carrying that around with me would ruin my life more than my heart attack already did.”
Gutierrez’s widow, Teresa, applauded the department’s efforts to find the cause of the illness that killed her husband of 29 years. But she said she wishes that the study would have been done years ago, in time to prevent her husband’s death.
“I feel cheated,” she said. “He would have been retired, still young at 54. We had our children all taken care of and we were going to travel, have fun.”
Holaway said Teresa Gutierrez is now receiving her husband’s retirement benefits, but they were won in court. Gutierrez’s workers compensation claim, which he filed before his death, is still pending in court, Holaway said.
Chief James N. Smith, now the county’s fire marshal in charge of fire prevention, was also an investigator on the fire. But his illness was more immediate, and so far, less serious.
About six weeks after the A-1 Chemical fire, Smith said he was on another investigation of a fire involving chemicals but in far lesser quantities.
The next day, Smith became sick with flu-like symptoms. A few days later, Smith awoke unable to stand, focus his eyes and form words.
“It was as if I was really drunk,” Smith said. “I had to hold on to the wall to get to the bathroom.”
Smith said doctors first diagnosed him with spinal meningitis, later with hepatitis, and finally with chemical poisoning. He said doctors speculated that chemicals from the A-1 Chemical fire had accumulated in his system and that exposure to fumes from the second fire pushed him above his threshold of tolerance.
“We don’t know how many of the unexplained tumors and cancers are directly related to the A-1 fire and that’s what we hope to find out,” Smith said. “The lessons on this one are yet to be learned.”
Capt. Ken Maffei, a firefighter who also serves as president of the Ventura County Fire Fighters Union, believes that the department still has a lot to learn about how to protect its employees.
“I look back to what happened in 1971 and there weren’t laws to protect us then,” he said. “Now we have the laws that allow us to know what chemicals are where and what they do, but we don’t have the information system in place that allows us to access the information when we need it.”
Maffei said budget restraints have delayed funding to install computers at each fire station. Stations now have the information on paper that explains the chemicals, their health effects and how to handle fires involving hazardous materials.
“But it’s reams and reams of paper and I don’t have room for it on a firetruck,” he said. “And even if I did, how long would it take me to read through it at a fire? All that is supposed to be on computers.”
He said the specialized hazardous materials trucks have computers on board so they can call up information on chemicals at a fire scene.
“But that information is limited, and the haz-mat people aren’t the first responders to a scene,” he said. He cited the June 28 train wreck at Seacliff north of Ventura that closed the Ventura Freeway for six days.
“It took four to six hours to get the information on the hydrazine that spilled.” He said that kind of time lag is typical.
Maffei hopes that things improve next year when Fire Department dispatchers at county headquarters get a new computerized system on hazardous materials that will allow them to disseminate the information to firefighters on the scene. Although he is critical of the department, Maffei said the county’s top fire officials are acting responsibly in their efforts to learn whether the A-1 Chemical fire is to blame for the two deaths and the illnesses of others.
“If the illnesses are linked to that incident,” he said, “the county owes it to the men to see that their widows are taken care of.”