They went from fighting fires to fighting for their lives. In a special report, Eyewitness News profiles two veteran firefighters who both beat cancer. Now, they’ve made it their mission to warn their fellow firefighters of the risks that remain long after the fire is tapped out.
February 6th, 1992
On an unusually warm, peaceful and placid winter morning, the sky fell and the earth shook. It was a day that many can’t forget. The scene created images that many wish they could.
“I’ve never been in a war zone but that’s what it looked like,” said Evansville Fire Captain Larry Zuber. “I can still recall every detail from her khaki pants to her blue shirt to the soles of her shoes that were charred.”
On the the day of the C-130 plane crash, Zuber, who was a rookie at the time, wasn’t supposed to be working. He did anyway.
“There was a massive amount of ambulance, police and fire personnel,” Zuber said. “I was in awe of that especially being five months on the job. I was wide-eyed, almost to the point of ‘what have I gotten myself into’ but not quite.'”
It’s been 22 years since the crash and over that time Zuber has worked his way to the rank of captain on Rescue 1. He’s also the president of Professional Firefighters Local 357, a position he’s held for two years.
He’s been a firefighter long enough to be qualified in saying ‘back in the good old days.’
“Back in the good old days, dity gear as a badge of honor,” Zuber said. “Nobody wanted to clean their gear. Nobody wanted to wash their helmets.”
“That was the mentality back then,” said Indianapolis Fire Captain Tim McDonnell. “I’m seeing on my department — people what I would have suspected to have been resistant to keeping their gear clean all the time — aren’t. They’ve seen the numbers. They’ve seen friends, they’ve seen people they know get that diagnosis.”
The statistics are staggering, McDonnell said.
An unprecedented national study in it’s final stage suggests that firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer. Firefighters are also at a greater risk of developing Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as well as skin, brain, prostate and colon cancer, according to the NIOSH study. Researchers and firefighters attribute these numbers to the abundance of synthetic materials that are now commonly found in the typical American home. When these synthetic materials catch fire, they burn off carcinogens, according to the study.
“Back in the good old days, you had natural fibers,” Zuber said. “Just about everything in the house has some sort of PVC. One of the stabilizers in the process is cadnium. Cadnium is a known carcinogen. It does promote prostate cancer.”
When firefighters enter a burning structure, many of those materials end up on their turnout gear. Those materials can seep into the pours of the skin when the firefighter sweats, Zuber said.
“When we’re at work in a burning structure, when we crawl in that building, in all probability the only natural thing in that room is us,” McDonnell said. “There’s a saying the fire service that this isn’t your grandfather’s smoke. That’s because it’s not.”
Much like the day of the C-130 plane crash, there are days that these two firefighters will never forget.
They can recall every detail of that day when their sky fell and their world shook.”
“We had actually been on a fire run and I got a voicemail from my doctor. Unfortunately, that was at 11:55 a.m. and at noon he was gone for the weekend,” Zuber said. “Those were the results of my biopsy. [On Monday] we went in and talked with him and that’s when he gave the full diagnosis. It was moderately aggressive prostate cancer.
“We were cross-training with another fire house one day. One of the paramedics on the engine looked at me and said ‘what’s wrong with your neck,'” McDonnell said. “She felt my neck and said you need to see a doctor. The doctor put a scope in my nose and looked around. He took it out and set it down on the table, looked me in the eye and said ‘you have cancer. I had nasal pharyngeal cancer. I was diagnosed in 2000.”
Zuber’s treatment and recovery took 8 weeks. McDonnell’s took 8 months.
“I don’t care how tough you are, cancer is tougher,” McDonnell said. “It’s not a death sentence but at the same time it’s a very real possibility.”
Both men are now part of the Firefighters Cancer Support Network. McDonnell serves as the Vice President of Events for the Indiana Chapter. The organization, which is in nearly three dozen states, provides a mentor to talk to every cancer-stricken firefighter. That mentor is selected based on the type of cancer he or she had, McDonnell said.
“Your family and friends can be as supportive as possible but to actually talk to somebody that has been through it is invaluable,” McDonnell said.
The mounting evidence of firefighters being more at risk of developing cancer has sparked conversations at fire houses across the country.
“I sat down six months ago with my wife and I told her that we all know the inherent risks of being a firefighter,” one firefighter said. “But it’s almost to the point where you almost assume that you’re going to end up with some terminal disease because of the job.”
Being a firefighter has it’s hazards but ask anyone in the fire service and they’ll tell you that the reward is plenty worth the risk.
“I was never upset or angry that I’m a fireman and I got prostate cancer,” Zuber said. “I still believe that I have the greatest job in the world.”
Zuber said it’s now his personal mission to make sure all of his fellow firefighters are aware of the risks. He’s also stressing to his members that resources are available. At many Evansville fire houses are extractors — which are specialized washers — as well as dryers. In the fall of 2012, Zuber lobbied the City Council to provide funding for this equipment, which the Council eventually did.
Along with the specialized dryers, the extractors clean the turnout gear and rid the material of the dangerous chemicals and carcinogens found in the soot.