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

Fourth of eight parts

This article was originally published on May 3, 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.

In Part 4 of an eight-day series, an alarming pattern of disease emerges.

A chill wind ruffled the flowers piled atop a shiny red fire engine as it turned slowly into Valley Forge Memorial Gardens around noon on April 28, 1982. Behind it, a cortege of mourners stretched for miles.

At the grave site, blue-uniformed firefighters from Chester and dozens of other communities formed ranks around the flag-covered pine coffin of a man being honored, with every full-dress flourish, as a hero.

His comrades would have it no other way.

Chester Fire Capt. Marvin Cherry, they believed, had paid the ultimate price for fighting the chemical inferno at the Wade dump.

For eight hours on Feb. 3, 1978, Cherry had stationed himself on the poisoned lot, first to tamp down the dying flames, then to pull equipment from smoldering mounds of debris. He was called back twice, when fires flared again.

At the time, he had seemed an iron man, lean and fit. And now, at 40, he was dead of lung cancer.

"In our eyes and hearts," recalled firefighter Bill Suter, "it was a line-of-duty death."

They buried him with full departmental honors. Fire Chief James McDonald presented the folded American flag to Cherry's widow, Joan. Fellow captain Vincent "Moose" McLaughlin and Suter gave Cherry's badge to his three young children. A 21-gun salute and "Taps" filled the air.

McLaughlin had planned this funeral for his buddy. With Suter and some others, he had seen to every detail.

"We had never done all this before," said Suter, who kept careful notes of the arrangements.

That was a good thing. They would be needed again.


No one who had worked the Wade fire was keeping count yet, but Marv Cherry was the 10th among them to fall seriously ill. He was the fourth, and youngest, to die of lung cancer.

Until Cherry went down, only the neighbors of the dump had made a public stink about what millions of gallons of burned chemicals might one day do to their health.

Chester's firefighters certainly hadn't. When federal researchers passed out health surveys to those who had fought the Wade blaze, many refused to take part.

Union officials found the eight pages of questions intrusive and warned that the city might someday use the firemen's medical histories against them in benefits disputes.

"The union advised us not to fill them out," recalled former firefighter Ronald Stevens, who would have kidney cancer by 1993.

Even Chief McDonald, a platoon captain at the Wade fire, saw little reason to worry about ill effects. "I think the men were adequately prepared," he said.

In the end, only 35 firefighters bothered to complete the health surveys. That gave CDC one more reason to conclude that its work in Chester was "of limited value."

But by the middle of 1983, the mood around the firehouses of Chester had changed. The men - along with their union - were pleading with CDC to come back.

Heading the effort was McDonald. "Too many young fellows," he said, "are coming down with diseases that they should not be coming down with."

Himself, for instance.

McDonald was 49 when crippling pains shot through his legs in May 1980. His veins were diseased, blocking blood flow. Surgeons performed a bypass on the leg vessels but could not save two gangrenous toes. A year later, vessels clogged again, requiring another bypass.

The same vascular condition had hit firefighter Curtis Weigand, 47, a year before McDonald. He, too, required surgery.

Both men were diabetic and therefore prone to circulatory problems. But Cherry's death set them to worrying that somehow, the Wade fire also was to blame.

That vague anxiety spread through the ranks and, by July 14, 1983, was verging on panic. McDonald went before the City Council to ask that CDC be called back - and soon, for there was more bad news.

Moose McLaughlin had cancer.


He first felt the pain beneath his right shoulder blade in early 1983. McLaughlin shrugged it off as a pulled muscle.

"Jude! Do we have any Ben-Gay?" he'd holler after work as he rummaged for his Bermuda shorts and a Budweiser. Judy McLaughlin, a licensed practical nurse, would find the ointment and rub it over her husband's broad back.

Aching muscles were nothing special to a Chester firefighter who responded to about 500 calls a year. But after three months of massages, Judy resorted to nagging.

"You better go see the doctor," she kept saying. "Somebody doesn't have a pulled muscle for three months."

His stock answer: "Well, I keep aggravating it."

After 21 years, she knew his stubborn streak. And that she loved him fiercely.

They had met at a wedding rehearsal in February 1962. She was maid of honor, engaged to a Navy officer but, that night, irresistibly drawn to the best man.

"The first time I saw him, I knew," she said. "Here was this big, 6-foot-2, 210-pound hunk. He had black, wavy hair and beautiful blue eyes. He had a smile that melted you; you couldn't help it."

After the rehearsal, he asked her out for a beer.

"I'm engaged," she said.

"I didn't ask you that. I asked if you wanted to get a beer."

They went to Vesuvio's, a little place on West Ninth Street in Chester, and ate pizza. She saw kindness in his eyes, an easiness in his manner.

That night, at home, she pulled the ring from her finger and put it away in a box. Judy and Moose were married eight months later.

Baby Kelly Ann came along in December 1963, then Patty in 1970, the year their father joined the Chester Fire Department.

Even as a captain, Moose didn't make much more than $500 a week. He drank cheap beer and Judy drank Thunderbird. They rode around in clunkers, vacationed in campgrounds with Jim and Connie McDonald in a 17-foot hardtop trailer, and, when the girls were little, splashed in a plastic pool behind their narrow, two-story house on an Upland cul-de-sac. They dreamed of retiring near the beaches and fishing boats of Delaware. Moose's 20 years with the Fire Department would be up in 1990.

He had seven years to go when the back pain started. In June 1983, Moose finally visited his doctor, Luke Cellini, who ordered an X-ray.

At nine that night, the McLaughlins' phone rang.

Cellini wanted them in his office the next morning. The doctor and the patient were old friends, but Moose didn't ask for details. It was as if he knew, his wife recalled.

"Jude, this is not good," he said, hanging up.

"It's from that goddamn fire."


The X-rays showed a growth near the right side of his throat. The diagnosis was follicular cell cancer of the thyroid.

It rarely kills; more than 95 percent of thyroid cancer patients live at least five years after diagnosis.

But Moose McLaughlin's cancer was spreading fast. When he entered Crozer-Chester Medical Center in early July 1983, it already was in his lungs and bone marrow.

Judy retreated into denial. "This just cannot happen to him," she remembered thinking. "They're wrong, the tests were wrong."

As for the affable Moose, he flew into private rages, centered mostly on the Wade dump and the city that had failed to warn him.

"He just lashed out at everybody," Judy said. "He was sorry he was ever a firefighter. He was sorry he was ever on that night. He just was angry."

The others who had fought the Wade blaze weren't mad so much as terrified. A week after McLaughlin was diagnosed, Chief McDonald carried that fear to the Chester city fathers, who agreed to call CDC.

"This is an Agent Orange situation," declared Mayor Joseph Battle, who had been city solicitor when the dump burned.

The local union called its parent in Washington, the International Association of Fire Fighters, which also pushed for a study, as did the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.

On Aug. 16, two epidemiologists arrived in Chester from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of CDC. Paul Schulte and Richard Ehrenberg had only one day in which to chat up the politicians, tour the Wade lot, debrief a handful of firefighters, and distribute health questionnaires.

Waiting at the firehouse to meet them was McLaughlin, clad in a knit pullover instead of his white captain's shirt. Only three weeks earlier, doctors at Crozer had removed his thyroid.

As the NIOSH experts began their rounds, Lt. Richard McGinn, who had been on the front lines during the worst of the Wade blaze, looked on anxiously.

"We're all scared," said McGinn, who would die of colon cancer nine years later. "Some of the guys might not show it, but believe me, they're scared."

And not just by Cherry's death and McLaughlin's disease. The firefighters had done some homework for NIOSH - and found four other men who had been diagnosed with cancer after working the fire.

There was Police Detective Richard Jones, who in 1979, at 43, had been treated for a melanoma on his left foot. The hulking cop known as "Big Red," who played Santa Claus at Christmas parties, pulling up on a motorcycle, had patrolled the dump at 1 Flower Street in the days after the fire and watched his shoes disintegrate.

There was firefighter John "Junior" Francis, 55, who underwent surgeries in 1978 for cancer of the larynx and a melanoma on the sole of his right foot. He had since resumed his fourth decade at the firehouse, where he was revered for his specialties: meatballs, and sausage and zucchini.

In 1980, paramedic supervisor Bill Richard, at the Wade fire about 16 hours, had been stricken with Hodgkin's disease at age 29.

That sent Richard spiraling down. Long absences dashed his dream of running the Crozer-Chester emergency squad. Then he and his wife lost their first child. Stunned, they moved to Florida, where, instead of heading an EMS department, "I was cleaning out Dumpsters."

Also on the list was Upland volunteer George Reilly, who, at 60, had been one of the oldest firefighters at the Wade blaze. Diagnosed with lung cancer on Halloween 1980, he died 10 weeks later. Known as a man who enjoyed a party, Reilly had been in good health until he went to the doctor complaining of a nagging cough and sore neck.

Realizing that dozens of volunteers, like Reilly, had come to the blaze from fire companies beyond Chester, county fire marshal George Lewis began calling area chiefs, asking for names of all who had been there.

This time, more than 100 men filled out questionnaires.

The NIOSH visit generated enough ink in local newspapers that McDonald and Lewis also got inquiries from outside the ranks.

A former junior firefighter wrote: "I was handing out sandwiches to the firefighters. I was 16 at the time. . . . I had a rash all over my body [and] they put me on a oxygen machine. . . . I would appreciate anything you could do for me."

The word even spread to the state prison cell blocks in Dallas, Pa., where one John "Pinhead" Pauze, a Warlocks motorcycle gang member, was doing time for beating up two newspaper reporters and threatening to cut off a girl's ear. In a letter to McDonald, Pauze wrote that he had "frequented" Wade's dump in 1976 and once became ill when he watched 55-gallon drums being spilled onto the ground.

"It wasn't until about a half-hour after I left that I was able to breathe normally again," he wrote. "Now, for the past three years, I have experienced increased respiratory problems, and I am only 31 years of age."

NIOSH told Pauze to take it up first with his prison doctors.

The epidemiologists had come to Chester with plenty of doubts. It was improbable, they said, that a single chemical exposure, however massive, could bring on that range of cancers. Besides, as Schulte later noted, "cancers from chemicals just don't happen that fast."

They didn't waver from that view in their report, released a year later, in August 1984.

Schulte and Ehrenberg called the six reported cancers a "statistically significant excess" - in fact, three times the expected number. They refused, however, to blame the fire.

They recommended nothing beyond routine physical checkups for the Wade veterans and suggested that the city find a system for alerting firefighters to toxins in the area. To those who had hoped NIOSH would trace their illnesses to the dump fire, the report added, "this may be of little comfort."

Even more unsettling to the firefighters was this passage: "Whether they may in the future be at an additional risk of cancer cannot be determined."

Voicing the frustration in the ranks after a year of waiting, Fire Capt. Robert Friend said, "This report basically proves little or nothing to me."

It also was incomplete. The researchers' "statistical excess" would have been even greater had they known of all the sick or dead. Uncounted in their study were seven other cancer victims: two volunteer firefighters, two police officers, two Streets Department employees who spread salt and moved barrels at the fire, and a mail carrier whose daily route included the dump. When the report came out, three were already dead.

NIOSH had limited its study to cancer, but other serious illnesses were also besetting the group.

Gary McClelland, for instance, had fought the Wade fire as a teen volunteer and had suffered frostbite after falling into a pit of chemicals. He was serving in the Marines when, at 23, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984.

Firefighter Rudy Hollis was another casualty. He had already lost his job, to city budget cuts, when his abdomen started swelling in 1983. At his girlfriend's apartment one day, he fainted and nearly crashed through a second-story window. Doctors discovered his kidneys were failing and put Hollis, then 33, on dialysis. He was a rookie when he fell inside the burning Wade warehouse and had to be pulled from a pool of chemicals by his captain, Moose McLaughlin.

By the time the NIOSH report came out, McLaughlin could barely drag himself to work.

He had returned to firefighting in September 1983, but radiation and chemotherapy left him sick and weak. The black, wavy hair that his wife so loved was falling away.

He worked despite stabbing pains in his chest and back that, he said, "hurt like hell."

The thought of staying home was worse.

"If he didn't work," his wife explained, "he wasn't a man."


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.

Next: The outlaws who created the Wade dump and the companies that hired them to haul industrial wastes are called to account in court.