Mountain View Voice

News - August 26, 2011

For some, a 1965 fire still burns

Most who fought infamous Jasco fire have developed cancer

by Daniel DeBolt

Retired Mountain View firefighters and their families are still feeling the effects of the massive blaze at the Jasco chemical plant in 1965. Mountain View firefighters to this day look back on the fire as a major lesson for the department.

"Almost everybody that was at the fire has had cancer or passed away from cancer," said firefighter Damon Norvelle, referring to retired Mountain View firefighters.

At least seven Mountain View firefighters who fought the Jasco chemical fire have died from cancer, including two within the last ten years, Richard Roche and former fire chief John Walsh.

"Over a span of 20 to 25 years it caught up to most of them," said fire department spokesperson Lynn Brown.

Another retired Mountain View firefighter who was there is battling both prostate and stomach cancer. He has to take chemotherapy pills every day — at a cost of $4,000 a month — to keep his stomach cancer from spreading. He said his doctors tell him "You'll be fine as long you take it for the rest of your life." He said he felt fortunate that he experiences almost no side effects from the pills and his retirement health benefit from the city covers all but $15 of their cost.

He did not want his name used in this story because of concerns about how news of his health would impact a business he runs.

Because case law has made it nearly impossible to link cancer clusters to work environments, firefighters have had a hard time getting what many feel should be fair compensation for what they were exposed to on the job. The firefighter who wished to remain unnamed, a 29-year veteran of the department, has received $18,000 from the city in a settlement. "At least they recognized it," he said.

Shortly after 1987, the city saw a spike in cancer rates among those who battled Mountain View fires in the past. It was especially prevalent among those firefighters who were told to rely on their "leather lungs" instead of heavy and archaic breathing apparatuses. At the time, little was known about the increasingly prevalent toxics in building materials and manufacturing plants.

"When the captain says, 'Get your ass in there kid, don't put a mask on, go do it' — that's what you're going to do," said the firefighter battling cancer. Firefighters would come out of a fire "choking and spitting and coughing" and the captain would say, "That's how you do it, kid."

It wasn't until the Jasco fire that Mountain View firefighters began using their breathing apparatuses in every fire. Before he passed away, former chief Walsh told a reporter that he remembered his chief's assistant saying "From now on I don't want anybody (working) without breathing apparatus."

"A grim battle with flaming death"

When recalling the Jasco fire, firefighters always mention the woman who stood with onlookers across the street — her nylons melted off her legs. Vats and drums holding chemicals used to make paint remover exploded in what would now be seen as a horrific fireworks show, but that did not stop firefighters from fighting the blaze. Former firefighter John Espinoza said the chemical fumes dulled the paint on a new fire engine parked in front of the building. A local newspaper called it "a grim battle with flaming death."

At one point a mushroom cloud was sent hundreds of feet into the air when a large vat of acid blew up, something seen and heard from miles around. According to news reports at the time, firefighters being treated in the hospital after the fire compared it to a battleground, adding that it left them "shell-shocked."

Firefighter John Reid told a reporter that he and Capt. Ron Mumbower were nearly caught in the large explosion while trying to fight the fire inside the building: "All I remember is a sheet of flame coming over us!"

"We were only about 30-50 feet away" from the explosion, Mumbower said. "We could see the debris coming down. The blast blew it up and over us. We ran to get ahead of it — we made it."

Firefighters said they were exposed to hydrochloric acid gas and phosphine gas — a "severe respiratory irritant" used against soldiers in World War I and was later outlawed by the Geneva Convention. But it is still unknown exactly what other chemicals the firefighters were exposed to.

"It wasn't normal smoke," said Mumbower at the time. "We were being gagged and some of us threw up."

The fire occurred at Jasco's manufacturing plant at 898 Terra Bella Ave., an area which was then the city's industrial district near Highway 101. Somehow, the brick building still stands today. Jasco still manufactures several highly toxic chemical products, including paint remover, but the company left Mountain View in the 1980s.

Without the efforts of the firefighters, the fire could have been much worse — volatile fluids in four huge underground tanks did not explode.

It is likely that it wasn't just Mountain View firefighters who suffered from the fire. Firemen there included those who came from Los Altos, Sunnyvale and Moffett Field. "I wouldn't doubt that civilians suffered as well," Brown said.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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