July 25, 2014

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Advocates work to protect firefighters

Ask any folks who were in Lorain County on June 24, 1971 —they’ll probably say that four shipbuilders were the only lives engulfed in the fiery bowels of the ore ship Roger Blough when a blaze erupted inside the docked vessel at American Shipbuilding Co. in Lorain.

JASON MILLER / CHRONICLE
Kara Afrates, of Lorain, holds a photo of the Roger Blough as it burns on the Black River on June 24, 1971. Twenty-eight firefighters who battled the blaze have since died of cancer, including Kara Afrates’ father, Ken.

But ask Lorain resident Kara Afrates, 36, who was born just weeks after the fire, and you’ll quickly learn that the Blough inferno is most likely responsible for ending 32 lives, not four.

The four shipbuilders died in the fire, of course, but 28 others — all firemen who fought the Roger Blough blaze — died years later, Afrates said. And they all died from cancer.

She would know: Her father, Ken Afrates, was among them.

“That fire marked a birth and a death,” she said. “My birth … and my father’s death.”

When her father succumbed to pancreatic cancer on June 24, 1993 — just 24 hours after learning he had the disease — it marked the beginning of a long, painful battle for Kara Afrates.

Ohio is among about 40 states that have some form of “presumptive legislation,” but it does not have legislation that essentially assumes the firefighter’s employer — a municipality or government body — is financially responsible if the firefighter contracts cancer.

Ohio’s presumptive legislation only covers firefighters whose work-related injuries or illnesses are heart- or lung-related. As it stands, the burden is on firefighters or their survivors to prove that cancer was contracted from exposure to toxins or harmful chemicals in the course of fighting a fire.

Advocates for change in Ohio’s law say the burden should be on the firefighter’s employer to prove that the cancer wasn’t contracted from exposure while fighting fires.

Ohio’s version of presumptive legislation had Kara and her family engaged in a years-long battle to secure financial compensation for her father’s work-related death.

They eventually won, but others haven’t been so lucky.

On Friday, firefighters’ advocates and some lawmakers discussed presumptive legislation at LCCC’s Spitzer Conference Center.

Among them: U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, state Rep. Matt Lundy, Kara Afrates and firefighter advocate Tim Kling, a former Akron firefighter who spent years battling cancer.

However, a subsequent battle with the city of Akron proved just as draining. Akron officials fought to keep Kling from being compensated for his illness.

“It took me five years, 20 appeals and $17,500 in attorney fees to get the benefits I was promised for 30 years,” Kling said. “This goes on all over the state and country, and I’m just one guy. It’s not like we’re trying to scam the system or ask for handouts here.”

And that, Kling said, is what it boils down to: honoring a firefighter-employer contract.

Brown and Sutton, the wife of a former firefighter, vowed to take the fight to the federal level to help federal firefighters who are offered no form of presumptive legislation. They’re co-sponsoring a federal act.

“They need and deserve our support,” Sutton said at Friday’s meeting. “It’s one of those things that just seem like a no-brainer.”

Local advocates say a new study commissioned by the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters could usher in changes at the state level.

State Rep. Lundy said the state’s new legislation will hinge on results from the OAPFF study, which is expected to substantiate a link between cancer and exposure to carcinogenic toxins.

“People are shocked to find that we don’t have any kind of coverage for firemen,” Lundy said. “People would be embarrassed to find out their state doesn’t stand behind their firefighters.”

Kara said the realization that her father’s cancer was linked to his exposure on the Roger Blough fire started three years after his death, when her mother pointed out that a number of Lorain firefighters who fought alongside Ken Afrates had died of cancer.

To date, 28 of 86 firemen who fought the Roger Blough have died from cancer.

Kling said the academic and scientific studies confirming the obvious link between cancer and exposure to toxins only tell half the story.

“The problem with the voluminous studies I’ve put together: They’re all mortality studies,” Kling said. “It’s just strictly studying guys that have died of this stuff. Quite a few guys are cured, but the studies only include the fatalities.”

Among the biggest challenges for firefighters diagnosed with cancer is proving the link between their illness and their exposure to a hodge-podge of fires.

“It’s very complex, almost impossible to precisely define,” Kling said. “You can be exposed to multiple carcinogens, and in concert they inflict greater effects on the body than they would alone.”

For instance, researchers in Denver conducted an exposure study on firefighters and discovered that men who were standing two feet apart in the same fire came out with completely different levels of exposure to chemicals, Kling said.

“Fires are very dynamic, constantly changing,” Kling said. “There are very few constants other than this: You’re going into a witch’s brew.”

It can be years after an exposure to chemicals or toxins before cancer develops — anywhere from six months to 45 years — so families of firefighters who die of cancer are often left scrambling to find evidence of a link.

“When you go before workers compensation, they’re looking for a cause and effect,” Kling said.

In Ken Afrates’ case, his daughter found that most cities — such as Lorain — only require fire departments to retain records for seven years. After that the records are destroyed, making it near impossible for a family to research a dead firefighter’s work history.

“It all depends on which types of fires they’ve been to and which types of firefighters you’re studying,” Kara said. “In my dad’s case, it was more than 20 years before pancreatic cancer set in.”

In her research, Kara — who has a law degree from Case Western Reserve University — found the primary cause of pancreatic cancer is beta-Naphthylamine, a substance emitted from burning fuel.

Newspaper accounts on the Roger Blough fire said more than 30,000 gallons of fuel burned up in 18 hours, with some firefighters working 20 hours without a break.

Area firefighters at Friday’s meeting said the issue can serve as a wake-up call for young firefighters who race into fires without considering long-term health effects.

“These guys are strong guys,” Kara said. “They go into their jobs so strong, so healthy, and then they come out so sick. They think nothing is going to take ’em down.”

Lorain fire Chief Tom Brown said the issue is growing in importance in today’s world, rife with synthetic materials and hazardous chemicals.

“It’s not going to get you now,” Brown said. “But it’ll get you 25 years from now.”

Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.