Beyond the Flames: One toxic dump, two decades of sorrow

Third of eight parts

This article was originally published on May 2, 2000 on Page A1 of the Philadelphia Inquirer

On Feb. 2, 1978, a spectacular fire erupted at an illegal chemical dump in Chester. More than 200 emergency workers were unwittingly exposed to toxic industrial wastes. High rates of cancer and other serious illnesses have beset the group ever since.

Part 3 of an eight-day series describes how, after much foot-dragging, government officials were forced to confront the environmental disaster at the Wade dump.

By early 1979, a year after the fire, poisons still were oozing from the Wade dump. It remained as deadly as the night it burned.

In some ways, it was worse.

There no longer was a fence to keep neighborhood children out. They saw a magic mountain of busted barrels, steel beams strewn like jackstraws, and orange puddles, and they played. Some rolled empty drums home.

The three-acre lot drew scavengers, too, who culled the blackened rubble for something to hock.

Every half-hour, Chester police stopped by and slogged through the muck, looking for trespassers. They griped about ruined pants and shoes, and the dump's vile stench, yet some lingered to write reports, shoot the breeze, or grab a nap.

"Nobody'd bother you down there," said Officer Ed McClellan.

At least not government types. Agents of the state Department of Environmental Resources came by more than federal or city officials, but even their visits were rare - despite the fact that the Wade mess had landed in Harrisburg's lap.

And what a mess it was - by far the worst DER had ever faced.

Three million gallons of toxic waste had been dumped there. Some of it still lay in seven rusty tankers, two of them parked next to a fishing pier on the Delaware.

About 2,000 scorched and leaking barrels remained stacked inside the ravaged buildings. Drums of cyanide stood atop drums of sulfuric acid; mixed, the chemicals form a potion used in gas chambers. Hundreds more lay ruptured outside, on ground pocked with sludge pits.

Hanging over this chemical horror show was the threat of another inferno. On a visit, a DER agent watched aghast as a scavenger took a blowtorch to a steel beam balanced on two leaking barrels. Not that a spark was necessary, though; some wastes could be ignited by rain.

Yet there was "no sense of an agency coming to grips with the problems," recalled Keith Welks, who as a young DER lawyer led the Wade investigation.

"It was like the problem you don't think about because you don't have a clue how to approach it."

So even easy fixes went undone.

Like a fence. Cost: about $6,000.

In a just world, those who created the Wade dump would have had to clean it up.

But Melvin Wade, its owner and namesake, never would have said life was fair. Once the self-proclaimed "richest colored man in Delaware County," he had gone beyond broke. He owed nearly $500,000 in loans and taxes on the property. And he had let a $1 million insurance policy on it lapse.

Ellis "Sparky" Barnhouse, the hauler who first rented Wade's lot and turned it into a poisoned cesspit, had sold his business and left town.

Frank Tyson, his successor at ABM Disposal, filed for corporate bankruptcy soon after the fire.

The 50 firms that had generated the waste, and paid ABM cut-rate fees to cart it off, had never been on the hook. Back then, no law held them even partly liable for the doings at 1 Flower Street.

"There was nobody left to chase," said DER lawyer James Morris.

So it was finders keepers: The state, having officially discovered the dump in April 1977, was stuck with it.

After the fire, the federal Environmental Protection Agency did make a few forays to the site, chiefly to check for leakage into the river. At the time, dumping was a federal crime only if it fouled a waterway. Apparently finding no such evidence, EPA kept its distance.

Chester officialdom had already staked out its spot on the sidelines.

The city did little at the charred dump beyond sending in police patrols, posting small "No Fishing, No Swimming" signs, and bulldozing rubble into huge, seeping mounds - complicating the eventual cleanup.

The news media did even less; their interest largely went out with the fire. When the dump was mentioned in local newspapers, its contents were described merely as "flammable."

Among a handful of Chester residents, however, it was far from forgotten. They didn't know what was on that property, but they were quite sure it was terrible.

The first piece of evidence had shown up in Jean Haines' washing machine a day after the fire.

Haines belonged to a local activist group, the Chester Community Improvement Project (CCIP). Her husband, Joe, a volunteer firefighter, had been at the Wade blaze.

"I can picture Jean sitting in our office saying, 'I washed Joey's clothes and they fell apart,'" said Mary Ryan, a CCIP leader.

Because the office was a popular gathering spot - and just blocks from the dump - the women began hearing other stories. Of foul odors, scavengers, rainbow-hued puddles.

But "what got to us," Ryan recalled, "was that kids were playing with the drums."

Jean Haines took the stories to the City Council, to little effect.

"I kept screaming my head off, saying, 'There's kids playing down there,'" she recounted. "I saw it with my own eyes."

Exasperated, Haines turned to Welks, the DER lawyer. She demanded to know the state's plans for at least fencing the lot.

The state had none.

As Welks explained to her, the state couldn't just build a fence on private land. Melvin Wade still owned the property, and that made him responsible for putting one up.

That Wade had no money, and no inclination, was beside the point.

A potential buyer

While the DER balked at producing what amounted to pocket change for a chain-link fence, a real whopper of a bill loomed: the cleanup.

Having never seen anything like the Wade dump, DER officials could only guess at the cost. Maybe $350,000?

As they debated where to find that kind of money in their budget, a solution magically appeared: Someone was actually buying the property. And the problem.

With Melvin Wade more than seven years behind on real estate taxes, the county put his parcel - festering contents in full view - on the auction block in December 1978.

The top bid, $88,000, came from Philadelphia Electric Co., whose natural-gas plant sat next to Wade's lot.

DER officials were mystified. Could PE not know that, by holding the deed, it also would be holding the bag for the cleanup?

"We were licking our chops like wolves in the fairy tales," said K.W. James Rochow, then a top DER lawyer.

But not for long. Out of the shadows came the EPA, intent on telling the utility what it was stepping in.

Welks implored EPA to let the tax sale go through "before they jumped on this fat turkey."

EPA ignored him. PE backed out of the sale, leaving the two environmental agencies barely on speaking terms.

Little did the state know that the feds had their own plans for the dump.

Since the mid-1970s, EPA had pressed Congress for the muscle to tackle one of the decade's worst environmental perils: thousands of abandoned toxic dumps - including the newly discovered Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A "Superfund" law would allow EPA to not only clean up such sites, but also to recover costs by suing the waste producers.

The measure had stalled on Capitol Hill under intense lobbying from the chemical industry.

To help its cause, EPA wanted to show Congress how little enforcement power it had. The place to do that, the brass decided, was in court.

In January 1979, EPA put out a call to its 10 regional offices: Find a hazardous dump in your area with no financially solvent owners, one that poses an "imminent threat to health and the environment."

In the mid-Atlantic region, the Wade site came right to mind.

So, on a February morning just after the first anniversary of the fire, Flower Street was bustling. U.S. Rep. Robert Edgar, whose district included Chester, was there for a visit - an event staged by EPA to spotlight the dump.

Edgar announced that the agency was going to court to get the site cleaned up. Its ultimate target: the companies that created the wastes.

The Wade dump, he added, was a "time bomb ready to explode."

Which came as news to a lot of people.

Seeking answers

Two days after Edgar's visit, four Chester firemen went to EPA's Philadelphia office with a big question:

In doing their duty, what had they done to their health?

Leading them was David Wojs, who at 25 already had a reputation among his colleagues for daring.

The firefighters were like kin to Wojs. As a teen adrift in Chester's housing projects, he had moved in with the family of Capt. Vincent "Moose" McLaughlin. At 18, Wojs joined his mentor on the job.

At the Wade fire, he and McLaughlin had held the front lines. Time and again, Wojs plunged into the warehouse, into thick smoke and odd-colored flames.

Like many of the firefighters, Wojs wore no breathing gear.

Five hours into the fire, the pain in his throat and lungs became intense. He was ferried to Sacred Heart Hospital's emergency room, where a doctor told him he was suffering muscle strain. Go home and have a few beers, he was advised.

But Wojs returned to the dump and stayed until the fire was tapped out around noon the next day.

Now, a year later at the EPA office, Wojs and his comrades described a blaze more troubling than any they had fought. Larry Platt, 22, told of the searing pain in his chest that night. Cliff Pennewell, 46, and Larry Archibald, 26, had broken out in skin rashes.

A trio of EPA staffers listened to the men and promised to pass their information to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The firefighters left, believing EPA would get to the bottom of their health problems.

They were wrong.

"To some extent," said Joe Donovan, an EPA lawyer at the meeting, "it was beyond our legal authority."

‘Get a fence'

Finally, the flap over the fence got to Keith Welks.

With slides of the dump, lists of its poisons, and tales of children playing there, he and DER colleague Bruce Beitler headed to Harrisburg on March 22, 1979. There they laid it all out to Clifford Jones, soon to be confirmed as DER secretary for Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

Jones was disturbed by what he saw, those at the meeting recalled, and was exasperated that an item so inexpensive, yet so important, was mired in technicalities.

Minutes into the briefing - and almost 14 months after the fire - Jones ordered: "Get a fence."

At 3:40 the next morning, Chester Police Officer John Finnegan spotted smoldering debris at the Wade lot. He summoned firefighters, who hosed it down - unaware that they were making it worse.

Six hours later, Beitler arrived to measure for the fence. He saw what appeared to be a chemical reaction among several barrels.

Firefighters returned, this time under Moose McLaughlin's command. By now, everything about the Wade dump gave McLaughlin the willies. As noted in a police report, he told his men to stand clear.

"Until someone determines the cause and the result of the reaction," he ordered, "there will be no attempt . . . to apply foam or water."

Good call. The drum held sulfuric acid, which had reacted with water to form a dangerous mist.

Under orders from DER and EPA, experts extricated the barrel, pumped the acid into a tanker and diluted it. The ongoing reaction was so strong, the metal tanker got hot.

Traveling fish

By the summer of 1979, Jean Haines and the other community activists who had raised the ruckus over the Wade dump concluded that it was off the official radar. Again.

The fence had gone up in April, 14 months after the fire. But scavengers cut holes in it, and children followed them inside. Occasionally, Melvin Wade wriggled in to pick the debris for salable junk.

As the days warmed, Haines and Mary Ryan noticed other visitors to the adjacent riverbank: fishermen looking for dinner.

Hoping to document how dangerous that diet could be, Ryan talked an angler out of his catch. "We took it back to the office, got ice, and put it in the refrigerator," she recalled. "I spent a day and a half on the phone, trying to find someone who cared about this fish."

EPA, Ryan recounted, told her it was a local problem.

"I said, 'If we put the fish in the car and drive it across the [Commodore] Barry Bridge and come back, that's crossing the state line.' "

She was spared the trip. EPA scientists, in protective clothing, eventually came by to collect the fish and take it to their Annapolis, Md., lab.

"They lost our fish," Ryan said. "We never heard back."

That wasn't the only Chester fish to do some traveling that summer.

Another turned up at the Philadelphia office of U.S. Sen. John Heinz, with a "heart-rending note attached to it about how everyone was concerned," recalled Catherine Killian, an aide to the late senator. She shipped the fish to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

It, too, was never heard from.

‘Kind of beaten down’

Word hadn't made it to the streets of Chester, but in Harrisburg that summer, the first step was being taken toward a cleanup.

With $201,000 from the state's Clean Water Fund, DER hired a Massachusetts environmental consultant, Mitre Corp., to oversee the project.

Glimpsing the 2,000 drums crammed into the burned-out buildings, a Mitre engineer pronounced them a "fire and explosion hazard."

That quickly became evident.

On the morning of Aug. 30, heavy rain on leaking barrels set off more acid mist. Firefighters' foam only fueled the reaction.

With ambulances and fire trucks nearby, two EPA specialists in air packs and protective clothing approached 20 or 30 smoking drums to test for what they feared was phosgene gas - a deadly chemical used in World War I.

The results were negative, but the reaction went on. As night fell, cables were attached to the barrels, and a bulldozer dragged them out.

The source of the vapor - a drum bulging "nearly like a football," by one account - was found and smothered with sand. By 10:50 p.m., the crisis was declared under control.

The Chester activists, hearing of this latest scare, grew more frantic.

This time, their pleas caught Heinz's ear. Like Edgar, he was pushing for Superfund legislation, and he saw a perfect example to bolster his case with fellow lawmakers.

Not only was the dump an environmental incubus, but it had great visuals for TV, with hills of debris set against the soaring bridge.

Before the Oct. 15 trip, Heinz's staff laid out the agenda in a memo: "Visit the so-called Wade site . . . where mysterious clouds from toxic chemicals have appeared, deadly chemicals leak into the Delaware River, and fires break out spontaneously (Staff assures JH that he will be kept at a safe distance)."

The memo added: "This site was selected because of its 'sexiness.' "

As cameras rolled, Heinz declared it an "outrage" that the dump had been allowed to fester. He talked up Superfund and proposed a toxic-waste hotline where emergency workers could get guidance on hazardous spills or fires.

Yet if Heinz had any hope of being the star that afternoon, it dissolved when a natty gent stepped forward and announced: "I'm the man the dump was named after."

Bam, it was Melvin Wade's show.

Wade deftly fielded media questions, saying he'd had no clue to the vile contents of the barrels delivered to his lot. Then he unveiled his own cleanup plan: Designate the property a federal disaster area and give him relief dollars.

Outside the fence, a group of residents endured his performance. The man they wanted was Heinz.

They begged the senator for a federal health study of neighborhood children who, they said, already were having eye and skin problems.

Daisy McDaniel, who lived two blocks away, explained the stakes: "We need these dumps cleaned up because we love our babies."

Four days later, Heinz asked the federal Centers for Disease Control to "conduct epidemiological studies in Chester and to monitor the long-term health effects on residents."

In November, two CDC researchers came to Chester with one-page questionnaires. They surveyed 31 households near the Wade lot - 32 adults and 54 children - and visited a neighborhood clinic.

Finally, questionnaires went to Chester firefighters who had fought the big blaze.

The surveys did not appease the activists. In December, 31 of them took a bus to Washington to press their demands with Heinz.

The meeting began badly. When members called the CDC study inadequate, Heinz exploded - on tape.

"It seems to me that you are a relatively ungrateful bunch of people, and I'll tell you why," he scolded. "Not one person thanked me for getting CDC to go to Chester."

A Catholic priest, in lay clothing, interrupted: "Wait a minute. I don't think we deserve this."

Heinz shouted over him: "Shut up! Let me say this. You hear from me. You'll get a report from CDC and a chance to comment on it. What more do you want?"

The group sat stunned.

"We were people who were kind of beaten down," recalled Mary Ryan, the member with the tape recorder. ". . . It took us maybe halfway home before we said, 'We're going to the papers with this. He had no right to do that to us.'"

The next day, after the story hit print, Heinz apologized to the group. He blamed his outburst, Ryan said, on low blood sugar.

A high-stakes gamble

Within a week, the activists got good news, if not from Washington.

DER had awarded a $350,000 contract to Rollins Environmental Services to start the cleanup by removing drums still full of chemicals.

To speed the process, Welks and Beitler headed to the dump with spray paint and a "DER" stencil.

"When we [marked] 400 or 500 drums - the maximum we felt we could afford with our contract - we sort of said, 'There, we've defined the job,' " Welks recalled.

But the site had five times that many intact barrels. When Rollins' workers arrived, they asked Welks: "Is there a reason we're not dealing with those drums?"

The dump held other surprises. Within two months, crews stumbled across 110 barrels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a toxic lubricant and coolant. At the time, only two disposal sites, in Arkansas and Texas, were allowed to take PCBs.

Soon, the estimated cost of even a partial cleanup shot to $1 million. Then $3 million. Then $4.6 million.

DER officials knew they could never foot the bill alone. As much as they distrusted their counterparts at EPA, they would have to cut a deal with them:

The state would continue the cleanup. The federal government would go after the waste producers in court, as Edgar had promised at his Wade dump news conference. If the lawsuit succeeded, the state would get its money back.

It was a gamble. And DER had no choice but to take it.

Inside the circle

Not until December 1980 did the CDC release results from its health surveys of Wade dump neighbors and firefighters.

Despite the ailments recited by Daisy McDaniel, the researchers said they found no serious illness among the children.

Headaches, coughs and skin rashes were the most common complaints of the 35 firefighters who filled out questionnaires. It was impossible, the researchers said, to trace those symptoms to a single fire.

The CDC conceded its study had "limited value."

As for Heinz's request for a federal health-monitoring program, nothing came of it.

So, as bad things began happening to those who had been at the Wade fire, they went unnoted outside a small circle of comrades. Even within that circle, it was easy to blame bad luck or bad habits.

In May 1978, three months after the fire, Chester firefighter John "Junior" Francis, 55, was found to have a melanoma on the sole of his right foot. A two-pack-a-day smoker for 20 years, he learned he also had cancer of the larynx, requiring a partial laryngectomy.

In November 1979, Police Detective Richard Jones, 43, had a melanoma removed from the top of his left foot and began chemotherapy.

Jones had been sent to the dump the day after the fire to chase trespassers. Wading in black muck, he entered a burned building only to have the floor break under him. His leg sank into a pool of chemicals, which ate through his boot.

Less than a week after Jones' diagnosis, volunteer firefighter Bernard "Stump" Swanson found out he had lung cancer.

Swanson had arrived at the raging fire in the early evening of Feb. 2 and stayed for hours. Within a few months, he was coughing so hard that blood vessels in his throat ruptured. He had smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for many years.

Ten days after diagnosis, Swanson was found dead in his hospital room, slumped over a trash can filled with blood. He was 42.

In the summer of 1980, Bill Richard, 29, a paramedic at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, was returning from a trip to Canada when severe back pain set in. He drove directly to the hospital, where he got the bad news: Hodgkin's disease, cancer of the lymph nodes.

At the fire, Richard had parked near the Wade gate and treated firefighters through the night.

"I remember the smell," said Richard, his disease now in remission. "Unfortunately, most of those chemicals get you before you smell them."

Also in the summer of 1980, volunteer firefighter Atwood "Ray" Griffin, 54, died six months after being diagnosed with cancer of the chest wall. He had smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 30 years.

In December of that year, George Reilly, an Upland volunteer who had quit smoking in the early 1970s, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died within four months, at 64.

In August 1981, Police Officer Robert Lee Walker had a tooth removed. The bleeding wouldn't stop.

Walker, who had patrolled the Wade site with Richard Jones, was diagnosed at age 53 with aplastic anemia, a blood disease that destroys bone marrow.

The ranks of the afflicted were growing. Yet it wasn't until the awful fall of 1981 that some began connecting the dots to the Wade dump.

"What happened to Marv Cherry," firefighter Bill Suter said, "made us think about what went on down there."

A fit firefighter falls ill

In a job where waistlines thicken between alarms, Chester Fire Capt. Marvin Cherry stood apart.

Lean and brawny from exercise, Cherry watched what he ate. He didn't drink and hadn't smoked since 1970, the year the first of his three children was born - and the year he joined the fire department.

"We used to arm wrestle," Suter recalled. "Nobody could beat him."

Those who tried got a dismissive smile but little banter from the quiet frontline veteran.

In other ways, too, Cherry wasn't one of the boys. He lived not in Chester but in Drexel Hill, where he coached youth basketball and helped lead the YMCA's father-son Indian Guides program.

With commendations accumulating in his file, he made captain one month and one day before the Wade fire erupted. Commander of "B" platoon, Cherry was sent in to help mop up and retrieve fire equipment from the debris. He returned at least twice for subsequent fires.

Three years later, though just turning 40, Cherry was showing signs of wear. He was coughing and wheezing, and 15 pounds melted off in the summer of 1981.

In the fall he found out why. The diagnosis was lung cancer, and it rapidly spread to his brain, skeleton and liver.

Despite radiation and chemotherapy, he struggled to work, showing up in a toupee. His spectral presence horrified and inspired his mates all at once.

"He didn't want to lay down. He knew what he was up against, I guess," Moose McLaughlin later recalled. " . . . He was a tough guy."

But a seizure in early December knocked Cherry out of work for good. Through one hospital stay after another, his men rallied at his bedside, intent on keeping the conversation light.

"We'd kid around a lot," Suter said. "We're famous for, pardon this expression, busting each others' stones. Marv would stay right in that - to the end, he would."

Moose and Judy McLaughlin were among the regulars, and were there one day as Cherry's family was about to arrive. Concerned that his bald head would frighten his children, he asked Moose to fetch his hairpiece from the closet.

"He set this thing on his head," Judy remembered, "and I said, 'Oh, my God, Marvin! You're worried about scaring the kids? That's enough to scare anyone! It looks like a cat sitting on your head.'"

But laughter was a detour around the obvious. Cherry was dying.

He was convinced the Wade fire was the reason. "In his heart and mind, he knew it," Suter said recently.

By March 1982, his comrades were standing watch around the clock, over the objections of hospital administrators.

"We're brothers," Ray Truax recalled telling them. "This is how firefighters are."

On the morning of April 24, Suter walked into Cherry's room at Delaware County Memorial Hospital, and into the endgame.

"He told me he had made peace with the man upstairs," Suter said.

Cherry died that day, leaving a wife and three children under 12.

Word flashed through the department, and the planning began for a hero's send-off.

Death had come in a hospital bed, not a burning building. But to a man, Chester firefighters believed that Capt. Marvin Cherry had died in the line of duty.

Inquirer suburban staff writer Dan Hardy contributed to this article

Next: A young fire captain is buried, a second falls ill, and those who fought the Wade dump fire begin to recognize an alarming pattern of disease spreading within their ranks.


In preparing this series, The Inquirer interviewed more than 300 people and reviewed thousands of pages of documents.

At least 230 firefighters and other emergency workers were exposed to the Wade dump fire or its aftermath. Reporters reconstructed the stories of 207 of these workers from interviews with them or their survivors, or, in a few cases, from court documents. Medical documentation was gathered for almost everyone who claimed a serious illness.

Sources of information included criminal and civil court records, death certificates, and estate papers. Reporters also reviewed state workers' compensation records, which include medical summaries and doctors' testimony. Company memos and letters quoted in this series are from those files.

Statements attributed to firefighter Vincent “Moose” McLaughlin, who died in 1987, are drawn from workers’ compensation testimony, family videos, and recollections of his widow, daughters and coworkers.