Under a Toxic Cloud : Chemical flood in 1987 blaze at Newport metal plating plant may be taking a deadly toll on firefighters and police at scene
The noxious black smoke was still climbing into the overcast sky when the men in moon suits told Steve Van Horn to strip off his police uniform. Standing in a child’s wading pool, the shivering cop watched as they stuffed his blue pants and his shoes into a plastic bag bound for a toxic dump. They told him it was all just a precaution.
That morning, firefighters had drenched the Hixson Metal plating plant with 65,000 gallons of water, but still the fires and fumes raged. Van Horn, slogging through the silvery blue chemical soup gushing back out of the plant, was too busy with the evacuation of 500 nearby residents to give thought to the less visible danger.
Now, nine years later, the gaunt police sergeant with the rumbling cough is a hunched, walking symbol of that February 1987 fire, a constant reminder of a danger that many believe did not die when the flames were extinguished.
Steve Van Horn is dying. His anxious colleagues wonder if he is the only one.
Newport Beach Fire Capt. Al Schmehl was standing across the street from the plant when a cleanup crew bolted out of the gutted Hixson building after a drum of acids ruptured. “I wasn’t wearing anything, none of the protective gear they had,” he said. Early this year, the doctors told the 45-year-old Schmehl that tumors stretch across his brain like a clutching hand.
Firefighter Larry Parrish was one of the first on the scene. Parrish never smoked, rarely drank and worked out daily. He was the iron man, a fitness freak. The colon cancer that attacked in 1993 stripped 90 pounds off his frame before it killed him at age 47.
Three men, one dead and two frail from cancer. No one can say with certainty why, but within the public safety community in Newport Beach, there seems little doubt: Each worked one of the worst hazardous materials fires in Southern California history, a vicious blaze that tore through the Hixson plant on the northern edge of Newport Beach and prompted a four-day evacuation of area apartments.
The flames broke open coffin-shaped vats that sent as many as 140 chemicals flooding into the street. It became a seminal moment in Southern California firefighting, but its most lasting legacy has been fear. The medical experts cannot confirm or dismiss a link between the cases of Van Horn, Schmehl and Parrish, but that only makes the anxiety worse.
“Hixson? I was there,” says Rich Thomas, president of the city firefighters association. “I’m waiting. We all are.”
There were about 80 uniformed men and women at the Hixson scene, representing half a dozen agencies. Perhaps two dozen people--most from Newport Beach departments--were in the “hot zone,” the area where they may have been exposed to sodium cyanide, hydrofluoric acid, hydrochloride, sulfuric acid and scores of other toxins. The chemicals stored in the building included at least four known to cause or suspected of causing cancer.
The contamination was so extensive that health officials carted away 172 drums of chemicals to a toxic dump and declared firetrucks unusable until they could be steam-cleaned. About $18,000 worth of fire hoses, boots, gloves and other gear was ordered destroyed.
* THE LOTTERY
The group that worked Hixson has unwillingly formed a small society in police and fire stations. They scan their skin for lumps and note every cough or ache. One cop compared it to watching a macabre lottery: Who’s next?
Firefighters Rich Thomas, Drake Muat and Todd Knipp and police officers Bob Rivers, Rich Long and Kent Stoddard--each was in the hot zone, along with others.
“As cops, we’re prepared for a knife or a gun, but we’re not prepared to defend ourselves against a black cloud of cancer-causing smoke,” said Rivers, a Newport Beach police investigator who turned in his shoes, belt and wallet after sloshing through the fire’s bubbling runoff water. Leather, like the human body, can store and carry toxins.
Hixson officials are loathe to discuss the blaze. Investigators found the company had done nothing wrong--the electrical fire was deemed accidental and fire officials have praised the company for assisting them at every turn--but the Hixson facility manager said he doesn’t want to resurrect his company’s darkest chapter.
“It was a circus,” said the manager, who spoke on behalf of the company, but only on the condition that his name not be used. “It left a bad taste in our mouth and we don’t want to be reminded of it.”
The facility manager said he thought it highly improbable that any chemicals watered down and carried by runoff could retain the potency to harm anyone. “And the smoke? Were they breathing that in? I guess it’s a possibility.”
Company President Bruce Hugart declined comment through the facility manager.
Did the massive amount of water sap the toxicity of the chemicals? Water diffusion does lower the concentration and, therefore, the danger of chemicals. But tests showed the sand used to dam up the runoff water was heavy with cyanide, and many of the officers and firefighters on the scene said the water was shiny and thick with the chemicals.
Dr. David S. David examined both Parrish and Van Horn when each sought to prove their maladies were work-related. In Van Horn’s case, the city of Newport Beach hired David. Based on those exams, and his knowledge of Schmehl’s case, David said the Hixson blaze must be considered a suspect in the failing health of all three men.
“All of us are exposed to things in life, but not like that, not that amount,” said David, a professor at UCLA’s School of Medicine and a cancer specialist.
The city of Newport Beach labeled the ailments of Van Horn, Schmehl and Parrish work-related, meaning they qualify for workers’ compensation coverage and other benefits.
But the city’s risk manager, Lauren Farley, said it is irresponsible to forge a specific connection between their cancers and the Hixson blaze.
“There is no medical certainty,” Farley said. “Can I tell you the fire was the sole or primary causative factor in these three cases? No. I can’t tell you that. I can’t come to that conclusion. There is no proof, no link.”
Farley points out that doctors who examined Schmehl said car fires--which release fumes from burning car seats and motor fluids--was a more likely cause of his cancer than the Hixson blaze. In the case of Van Horn and Parrish, Farley says no one can pinpoint the most likely cause. The Hixson fire was acknowledged during their medical exams as a major exposure in their careers--the major exposure, in fact--but that doesn’t mean it was the cause of their cancers, Farley said.
“To say it was Hixson is a blanket response,” Farley said. “That’s saying, ‘There’s an absence of anything else as a reason, so it must be this.’ It’s just not that easy.”
Farley acknowledges that doesn’t allay the fears of the city’s police and firefighters.
“You deliver the message and hope they understand,” she says. “But they all already have come to their own conclusions.”
* TAKING THE HIT
Knipp said the firefighters and cops in Newport Beach work in a shadow cast by a fire that went out nine years ago. They have heard the facts, but the fear remains.
“I’ll be honest, we try to put it out of our mind, but it’s always there,” Knipp said. “Every little health problem you have, you can’t take for granted. You sweat over things that other people can ignore. You try to just go on, and you just hope you’re not the next one. You hope you’re not the guy who takes the hit.”
No one knows more about the Hixson blaze than Capt. Drake Muat, the silver-haired leader of the Newport Beach Fire Department’s hazardous material team. He fought the fire, studied it and its impact on the health of his colleagues and hosted a national conference to help train firefighters on handling chemical fires. Muat believes the fire’s threat still rages.
On a recent afternoon, watching a videotape of the fire, he leaned forward and pointed to a flickering image on the screen: purple water rushing past fire hoses and collecting in a street gutter.
“It’s like a cocktail, but not one you’d like to drink,” Muat said. “The hydrofluoric acid eats you from the inside out, just turns you into a bowl of jelly. It attacks the calcium in the body and destroys the bones.”
The video footage of the Hixson fire is meant for training, but glimpses of a healthy Van Horn and Parrish amid the chaos make it a chilling time capsule. Throughout, police officers and firefighters can be seen within 50 yards of the blaze without the protection of breathing gear or special clothing. Shots of a milling crowd nearby--young children drinking sodas, a couple craning their necks for a view of the fire--take on a terrifying weight.
Muat knows the effects of the fire can never be fully tallied. He calls it the cost of doing business for firefighters in an increasingly complex era, when toxins lurk not only in factory vats, but in household plastic items.
“Steve Van Horn is what can happen. So is Larry Parrish. And Al Schmehl.” Muat looked back toward the television, where, for a moment, billows of Hixson’s ebony smoke fill the screen. “We’ve taken some major hits from that fire.”
* FIRE AND FLOOD
It all started with a short circuit. Sometime before 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 22, 1987, a sizzling wire created a spark beneath a chemical vat in the precious metals room of the Hixson plant. The flame found a foothold in a nearby plywood wall. An inferno was being born.
The Hixson building sits at Production Place and Placentia Avenue in an industrial district that rubs shoulders with large apartment complexes along the Newport Beach-Costa Mesa city line. Residents flooded emergency phone lines when they saw the smoke.
At 9:44 a.m., Muat was still a dozen blocks away from the plant when he saw a huge column of smoke, pale grays and purples mixed with coal black. He picked up the radio on Engine No. 2 and upgraded the blaze to a second-alarm fire.
Van Horn and other police officers were already at the scene, hustling away gawkers and posting yellow tape.
“It was this tremendous tower of black shooting up and not even bending to the sea breeze because of the heat beneath it,” says Sgt. Rich Long, a cop among the first at the scene. “It was an amazing sight.”
Five different times that day, firefighters and police officers would retreat, pushing back the command post because of powerful fumes and smoke blowing in their faces.
“I was being briefed when a cloud blew between me and the guy I was talking to,” Newport Beach Police Sgt. Kent Stoddard recalls. “It was an orange cloud, I think, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Perhaps we’re too close.’ We had no experience with stuff like that.”
By 9:50 a.m., a water cannon atop a ladder was pumping thousands of gallons into the building. Firefighters with hoses mounted an attack through a gutted window on the plant’s northeast corner--the area where, unknown to firefighters, the cyanide was stored.
An inventory of the plant’s chemicals had already been pulled from Fire Department records and inspired dread among Muat and the other captains: The chemicals included those used in the death chamber at San Quentin Prison, the same as those released into the air during a chemical plant explosion in Bhopal, India, in 1986, which killed 3,849 people.
As firefighters battled the flames, scores of residents in the nearby Newport Villa apartments and the Ebb Tide and Harbor mobile home parks were evacuated. The apartments were crowded on a Sunday morning, but Long said police commanders did not hesitate. “The Fire Department said there was a danger of poison gas, and that’s all we needed to hear,” he said.
As the building’s roof gave way, bright orange flames surged into view. Inside, fiberglass chemical vats tumbled off their platform and broke, tossing their contents into a world of fire and water and soot.
The flood of runoff pushed into the streets, collecting in gutters and splashing over sidewalks. “There was major runoff,” recalled firefighter Rich Thomas. “We were swimming in the stuff.”
The fire was declared under control at 11:22 a.m. Wind shifts continued to push fumes out of the plant, prompting an 11:39 a.m. order that all firefighters, not just those in the hot zone, must don breathing apparatus. Police officers, who had no breathing gear, were busy routing traffic and stopping residents trying to sneak back home.
“Some of us were right there, watching and milling about,” recalled Rivers, one of the motorcycle cops at the scene. “I remember riding my bike right up to the sidewalk in front of the building, stopping to stare. In retrospect, it was too close for comfort.”
Meanwhile, other agencies were busy sizing up the cleanup task. There was great concern about the chemicals reaching the Newport Bay, but studies would later conclude there was no significant impact on the fragile ecosystem.
The quagmire surrounding the building would take four more days to clean up. Most refuse was bound for a Class One toxic dump, the final destination for the most hazardous of materials.
“The exposures that day were unbelievable,” Knipp said. “The amount of chemical that we were all in. . . . It was one of those fires that you point to your whole life.”
The cops and firefighters did their jobs: No civilian injuries were reported and nearby residents were not exposed to the flood of chemicals that gushed out of the building.
Rivers said his memories of the Hixson blaze chill him. “You have to wonder about the safety issues. And Steve Van Horn was out there a lot longer than most of us. He was there first and stayed through the whole thing.”
* STEVE VAN HORN
Except for a steady cough, Van Horn is silent while watching the Hixson fire video in his dim office.
On the TV screen, he is a decade younger, with a chubby face and loping gait. At one point, he is seen unbuttoning his shirt, stripping at the order of health officials. Later he is seen in plastic jumpsuit pants and booties.
If Van Horn is affected by the sight of his healthier past, he doesn’t show it. He shrugs off talk of regrets, his disclaimers interrupted by more coughs.
“I’m not angry,” he says. “Who are you going to be angry at? Hixson didn’t start the fire. The department didn’t send me to something they shouldn’t have sent me to. Who can you blame? Nobody. Why agonize over, ‘Why me?’ You can always find somebody in a worse situation.”
His wife, Nan, was working as a parking control officer the day Hixson burned. She heard her husband’s voice on the radio when he arrived at the scene and, though miles away, she could see the plume of smoke against the gray sky.
Now the days are long for Nan Van Horn. The couple has two daughters--Jamie, 6, and Kelsey, 3--and Steve grows weak by early evening, a result of his treatments. Nan Van Horn gives him his after-dinner injections of interferon, which boosts his body’s defenses against the leukemia. Later, she waits for him to fall asleep first. The coughing stops when he’s asleep.
The cataracts in 1990 were the first sign that something was wrong. The doctor was stunned by the severity of the growths, which he said were unusual in a man Van Horn’s age. “They asked him if he had ever been exposed to anything, and that’s when we started thinking,” Nan Van Horn recalled.
Last fall, Steve developed a cough that defied antibiotics. In January, he mentioned it to a doctor during a checkup. The tests results three days later were a nightmare written in blood cell counts. The biopsy confirmed it. Leukemia.
“First you think, ‘Geez, I’m going to die,’ ” he says. “Then you think about your children, preparing them to grow up without a father.”
Nan Van Horn chokes back tears when she talks about giving her daughters a bath a few weeks ago. She told the girls she had to go give Daddy his nightly shot. Kelsey soon had tears rolling down her cheeks. When Nan asked her what was wrong, she looked up and asked, “Is Daddy going to die?”
Visits to the cancer clinic don’t buoy the spirits much.
“You see people in all stages, some that look like they should have been dead three weeks ago, with no hair and tubes in their chest,” he says. “It’s depressing.”
The median is 41 months of survival after interferon treatments begin. Steve Van Horn is in month 21. He has continued working to make money: The doctors say he might live three years or even seven, and he wants to provide for his two young daughters while he can.
Back in his office, again watching the video, Van Horn shakes his head as the image zooms in on a sand dam, caked in purple swirls. Van Horn groans and stretches his legs. The interferon makes his legs and feet ache, so much that he had to give up horseback riding. A few months ago, he gave his horse, Dandy, to young Jamie. The man who says he has no anger nods toward the television.
“In hindsight, I would have stayed further away.”
* AL SCHMEHL
Fire Capt. Al Schmehl could feel warm, wispy touch of the fumes on his face, but by then it was already too late. “What can you do?” he asks aloud nine years later. “Hold your breath?”
Schmehl arrived in the Hixson hot zone the morning after the fire was put down. The smoldering and chemical reactions continued inside, however, and Schmehl knew the absence of flame did not lessen the hazards.
Crew members had been told to put every chemical into a separate drum, but they opted for a short-cut with the first two vats emptied, according to Schmehl, Muat and others. The acids might have been compatible normally, but something--perhaps the intense heat or mixing with other chemicals--had made them volatile. The drum ruptured with a loud fizz, and the men in the clunky haz-mat suits scrambled through the debris for cover.
“You could see the cloud, but you can’t tell how far beyond the cloud the fumes were reaching,” Schmehl says. “In that heat, all those chemicals, it produces unknowns. Things you can’t see or even test for.”
The cleanup of the Hixson building was a monumental and delicate undertaking. Schmehl was among those who stayed on-site for four days. More fumes escape from smoldering debris than during a fully burning fire, experts say, and Schmehl says he was again and again in exposure situations.
Now Schmehl sifts through those memories the way he once sorted through ashes looking for the causes of fires.
Last Dec. 22, Schmehl was holiday shopping when he went rigid and his eyes rolled back in his head. He crumpled to the floor in the grip of a seizure. On Christmas Day, a dazed Schmehl was barely aware of the blurry parade of visitors to his bedside at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian. He remembers snatches of words: biopsy . . . inoperable tumor . . . radiation treatments.
The rare tumors in Schmehl’s brain clustered around the speech and memory areas. He says the doctors told him he might wake up one day and “stare at a wall for the rest of my life.” In some areas, it was difficult for them to tell where the brain ended and the tumors began.
Schmehl is weak now, his body wracked by six months of chemotherapy and, recently, radiation treatments five times a week. “They tried to wipe everything out,” he says tapping on his forehead. “They wanted to just blast it out.”
His expressive, brown eyes are hooded and weary. The hair on his head is just now growing back. The prognosis is vague: The tumors will likely shorten his life, but recent tests show he is responding well to treatment. If the trend holds, he might live decades. He hopes to return to work, but wonders if he can tolerate a desk job or handle anything more. He lost his driver’s license because he is vulnerable to seizures.
Most days, Schmehl winds down by dusk, crashing in a lounge chair while his wife of three years, Judy, tends to their 11-month-old son, Scotty. Some days, the guys from the fire station show up to work around the house. “They see me, and I know they worry and wonder about themselves. They come and talk to me and it makes them feel better. I’m still here.”
Schmehl doesn’t dwell on the negatives. Instead of death, Schmehl talks about duty.
“It’s my job to go into places where things are bad, like at Hixson. If there’s a spill or gas or fire, everybody else leaves and I go in. That’s the job. And I know the risks. I’m prepared for whatever happens.”
* LARRY PARRISH
She still sees him. Gina Parrish describes it this way: She’ll be driving down the street, distant and barely aware of her surroundings, and a flash of red catches her eye. She turns just as the firetruck whizzes past, just in time to see Larry there, riding in the back, grinning behind his Ray-Bans.
“It happens all the time. Whenever I see a firetruck, I see Larry again. The way he was.”
It has been two years since Larry Parrish died in his wife’s arms.
At the end, the cancer that killed the 49-year-old firefighter had left him feeble and emaciated. “He looked like he was 90,” his wife says. Once, Parrish had been the picture of vigor. He rode horses and a Harley, surfed and skied and was always at the front, leading, whether it was in the direction of a party or a two-alarm fire.
At the Hixson fire, Larry was right in the middle of the action, deep in the hot zone. The death of the 1993 Newport Beach Firefighter of the Year hit his compatriots hard.
“Larry’s death was a turning point for this department,” recalled Knipp, one of Parrish’s close friends. “He fell so far, so fast, that it really hit home. It affected the psyche of the entire department. Guys started wondering about their own health.”
Time seems to be standing still for Gina Parrish.
The walls of her new house are mostly bare. The sparse furniture makes the home seem cavernous. The Christmas decorations piled up in the living room aren’t two months early, they’re 10 months late. “I just never put them away. I just . . . I don’t know, time slips away from me a lot. I just feel . . . numb.”
Gina and Larry met in 1986 and immediately launched into “a fairy-tale romance,” Gina Parrish says with a smile. The two exercised together three hours a day and chased life, whether it was surfing near Trestles or hopping on his motorcycle for a run to Laughlin, Nev.
They were at Oktoberfest 1992 in Germany when Larry got a bad bout of constipation. He had suffered from hemorrhoids for months, and Gina finally persuaded him to visit a doctor when they returned home.
A week later, their carefree lives collapsed. Parrish had colon cancer.
The cancer quickly spread into his liver, defying intense chemotherapy that left the firefighter’s mouth and throat full of painful sores. His skin turned a bright scarlet. “The doctor told us it was burning his skin from the inside out,” Gina recalled. “It was awful.”
The couple married in July 1993. Larry Parrish wore a white hat to hide his bare scalp, bald from chemotherapy. Five months later, barely conscious and 90 pounds lighter, Larry Parrish reached out to his young wife and ran his hand over her fingers. When he found her left ring finger, he slipped an imaginary ring on it, reaffirming his oath.
“A few weeks later he was gone.”
* MEDICAL SUSPECTS
Dr. David S. David would rather talk about lab animals. With white mice and controls and tidy charts, it’s much easier to explain the cancers that ravage the body.
David examined Van Horn and Parrish when each filed work injury claims with the city. He said that while it is impossible to determine with certainty the origin of their cancers, the Hixson blaze is a strong suspect.
“It’s certainly very possible,” David said. “Very, very possible. If you have toxins like that, and if the dose is heavy enough, there is cause for suspicion.”
David cited studies that show 15 minutes of skin exposure to solvents and other chemicals can lead to more absorption than eight hours of inhaling fumes. The flood that poured from the Hixson plant would likely mirror that effect, he said.
“You can imagine the absorption in that environment--a great deal of absorption,” he said.
The police officers such as Van Horn--who did not have protective boots and gear--could be especially vulnerable while sloshing through a chemical flood, according to David and Dr. Philip Edelman of Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville.
In 1987, Edelman was a special advisor to the Orange County Health Care Agency. Wearing a haz-mat suit, he was among the first to venture into the building (“It was unbelievable--pools of chemicals were still fizzing all around us”) and later examined more than 60 firefighters and police officers for exposures.
“No one demonstrated any acute illnesses, but that does not mean you can rule anything out,” said Edelman, now chief of occupational environmental medicine at Vanderbilt Hospital. “If someone had a cut on their foot, that could lead to a direct absorption.”
Edelman said the Hixson blaze cannot be ignored while surveying the health of the three men, but he also said it should not be separated from other exposures throughout their careers.
“All exposures, from car fires to diesel exhaust, are relevant in these cases,” he said. “It’s not really possible in all cases to say why [they get sick]. It’s a very complicated toxicology.”
Dr. Hoda Anton-Culver, director of the UC Irvine Cancer Survey program, said colon and brain cancers take a decade to manifest, which would make the Hixson fire a less likely cause of the cancers that attacked Schmehl and Parrish. Van Horn’s case is “questionable,” she believes.
“But the real issue here is the exposures of these sort that public service workers are routinely exposed to,” Anton-Culver said. “We don’t know the effects of many of these chemicals and we don’t do a good enough job tracking and recording their exposures.”
In the final analysis, David said the chaos of the Hixson crisis makes it impossible to determine its effects on the people who stood in its path. “With animals in a lab you can make determinations like that. But not with human beings out in the world.”
* THE LEGACY
In the months after the Hixson fire, Drake Muat and others organized a national conference to examine the lessons of the blaze. The fire and the death of Larry Parrish also led directly to creation of a health screening program for Newport Beach firefighters.
Newport Beach Fire Chief Timothy D. Riley calls Hixson an “infamous fire” fraught with valuable lessons about hazardous materials.
“Historically, that’s how we learn these lessons,” he said. “Unfortunately, because of the nature of our work, sometimes the cost of learning is that people--our own people--die.”
If the Hixson fire were to happen today, Muat said, things would be different. Police officers early to the scene would keep more distance. Fire officials would have a detailed floor plan of the chemicals inside. All firefighters--not just the front-line troops--would don breathing gear. Firefighters would also have foam to combat the flames, eliminating much of the runoff that was created in 1987.
Even the new safeguards, though, cannot keep firefighters or police completely out of harm’s way. The jobs are defined by risk.
“It was part of when my dad was a firefighter and it’s never changed,” Muat said, recalling a childhood memory of his father succumbing to ammonia poisoning at one blaze. Muat’s father was lucky--he’s still alive.
“It’s like candles and moths. We rush in when we see danger.”
Even when his health began to fail, Larry Parrish insisted on returning to work. The fire station is where he wanted to be, his wife says, where he needed to be.
Abrupt waves of fatigue and nausea hit Al Schmehl throughout the day, but he longs to get back into his uniform.
Steve Van Horn still works, citing the money, but he concedes there’s more to it than that.
“This is what I do,” Van Horn says. “We all know the risks. But this is what we do.”
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