Three decades after an infamous New York Telephone Co. blaze, cancer ravages heroes
By BOB PORT DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Scattered within the archives of the FDNY lie hundreds of retiree files marked with blurry red ink. Some old-timers call it "the red star of death."
Death stalks these men. A 40-foot bronze wall of honor looms over the lobby at FDNY headquarters with 1,127 gold nameplates for those "who died in the performance of their duty."Nowhere is there any memorial for Joseph Pfundstein, Thomas Pitarresi or Richard Schultz.Pfundstein, 45, died of leukemia in 1983. Pitarresi, 62, died of colon cancer in 2000. Schultz, 63, died of liver cancer in 2002.
The three, dozens more who died and scores of other men suffering from cancer are among a group of 699 firefighters who battled the infamous New York Telephone Co. fire of 1975.
In January, almost 29 years after the fire, Dr. Stephen Levin, an expert in chemical toxins at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, issued a letter identifying the fire as a factor in Dan Noonan's case of leukemia.
"It is my view that your exposure to the combustion products of the PVC-insulated wiring present in the New York Telephone Co. building ... made some contribution," Levin said. And therein lies the tragedy.Cancers caused by burning polyvinyl chloride take more than 20 years, on average, to appear.
But today, the FDNY has no clear medical history for men who fought one of the department's worst toxic fires ever - and no data to document what's happening.
The only tracking system is the red "Telephone Fire" stamp on 699 paper folders. Meanwhile, the department has rejected pleas to mail a cancer warning letter to its aging veterans of the Telephone Co. fire.
"How do you single out this fire?" asked Dr. Kerry Kelly, the FDNY's chief medical officer. "Each time a firefighter goes on a run, they are exposed. "I can't go back and change what happened," she said. "How do you monitor people when they're retired?"
Former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen said the FDNY can do better. "There's no question that exposure to PVC and other horrible contaminants at the telephone fire has led to a higher level of cancers," he said.
"The FDNY has a responsibility to keep in contact with these members," Von Essen said. The FDNY is far better prepared for toxic hazards now, spokesman Frank Gribbon explained. "Today, you wouldn't think about going into a fire without your mask," he said. "Back then, it happened all the time."
High-tech computerized health tracking was set up for survivors of the World Trade Center attack, but the shadow of Sept. 11 obscured unfinished business left by the phone fire.
It will never be forgotten by the men who fought it.
On Feb. 27, 1975, the first of five alarms sounded a little after midnight. A 16-hour blaze followed in which more than 100 tons of PVC sheathing in a rat's nest of wires went up in smoke at a phone switching high-rise south of 14th St. on Second Ave.Clouds of hydrochloric acid and fumes of cancer-causing benzene and vinyl chloride filled the air as the conflagration boiled within a sealed vault three stories below ground.At one point, an explosion of accumulated hydrocarbon gas knocked firefighters outside to the pavement. Men inside used up their air cylinders, unable to escape in dense, black smoke without gulping the toxic air.
Pfundstein's widow, Ann Rotter, lost her husband early. She married a second Telephone Co. fire veteran, only to see him suffer bladder cancer in 2002. "A terrible wrong was caused by this product," she said, referring to PVC."I feel like I got robbed," said Virginia Pitarresi of Staten Island, whose husband died with only three weeks' warning as he neared retirement. "We were going on a big vacation."
Schultz died of liver cancer, which is rare, but like so many veterans of the 1975 fire, he died of a form not traceable to any single cause, and lived only three weeks after doctors pinpointed his ailment."We never imagined he could die so quickly," said Elinor Schultz, his widow.
By the mid-1990s, alarming tales of cancer spread among retirees, and Von Essen ordered an inquiry.In 1997, the FDNY surveyed 239 men who reported sick after the fire and found 18 already dead, seven from cancer. Their average age was 50. Six of the seven had worked in units that first responded to the fire.Only 121 firefighters returned a questionnaire. The only disclosure of what the FDNY learned came in the department magazine, WNYF, in early 1999: "There appears to be a cancer cluster among the first-due companies, but it may be too early to see this convincingly."
"There appear to be elevated rates of specific cancers," the magazine said, without giving details.The FDNY refused to share its survey results with firefighters. The department also declined to share the results with the Daily News.
Since 1999, the fire's death toll appears to have more than doubled, taking many men in their early 60s - though there is no official count.Noonan, 55, has pieced together word of as many as 40 cancer cases. A member of Ladder 3, he was among the first units on the scene.He developed leukemia at 52. Even before, he had begun a crusade to pry loose information from the FDNY and learn more about PVC."They stole my career from me, and now they stole my life from me," Noonan said. "It's been very tough."We've explained again and again that all 699 men who fought the phone fire suffer some form of respiratory distress."Virtually every firefighter who responded to the phone fire's first two alarms has cancer," he said.
Deborah Wallace, an expert in environmental health issues for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, said there is no doubt in her mind that PVC and the Telephone Co. fire caused a cancer cluster.
In the early 1980s, she studied ailments among phone fire men. "Already, by then, we were starting to get patterns," she said.Since the early 1990s, a New York law has assumed that any firefighter's cancer is work-related. The firefighter gets a disability pension - 75% of his pay instead of the usual 50%.
But if the cancer isn't diagnosed until after retirement, the firefighter gets nothing. That law, many firefighters believe, should be revisited.
"I thought I was treated pretty good while I was still working," said John McGowan of Naples, Fla., who wheezed with bronchitis for years after fighting the 1975 fire. "After I retired," McGowan said, "it was like 'Goodbye, see you later.'"
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Thread: a blast from the past...
03-14-2004, 07:28 AM #1
a blast from the past...ALL GAVE SOME BUT SOME GAVE ALL
NEVER FORGET 9-11-01
CAPT. Frank Callahan Ladder 35 *
LT. John Ginley Engine 40
FF. Bruce Gary Engine 40
FF. Jimmy Giberson Ladder 35
FF. Michael Otten Ladder 35 *
FF. Steve Mercado Engine 40 *
FF. Kevin Bracken Engine 40 *
FF. Vincent Morello Ladder 35
FF. Michael Roberts Ladder 35 *
FF. Michael Lynch Engine 40
FF. Michael Dauria Engine 40
"If my job was easy a cop would be doing it."
03-16-2004, 12:42 AM #2
This is a BUMP!
This could happen to any department in the country, any firefighter.
DO NOT LET THESE THINGS GO AWAY!I.A.C.O.J. Charter Member
"Chet, get an inch and a half on that!"
"Not for fame or reward,Not for place or rank. Not lured by ambition or goaded by necessity. But in simple obedience to duty as they understood it. These men suffered,sacrificed,dared all, and died. Let us never forget our fallen friends."
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