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Mesothelioma Lawyer - Article - Fire investigator found deadlier dangers after quitting police

Posted on Feb 15, 2006 | The Ottawa Citizen

Fire investigator found deadlier dangers after quitting police

After 24 years of sifting through the toxic remains of fires, Les McPhee died of cancer. Ironically, he had left police work due to the risks, Shelley Page writes.

Les McPhee began his career as a police detective, but after too many close encounters with criminals wielding weapons, he quit to become an investigator for the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office. For the next 24 years, he sifted through the smouldering rubble of 3,000 fires across Eastern Ontario looking for clues.

Just before Christmas, as he lay dying of cancer of the colon and brain, as well as mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer usually caused by asbestos exposure, the 66-year-old man turned to his wife, Susan, and daughter, Marnie, and apologized. "I wish I would have stuck it out and stared down a few more gun barrels instead of dying this way, and putting you through this," he told them.

As Susan, 52, recalls this story, tears come to her eyes. Daughter Marnie, sitting beside her, excuses herself and leaves the room. They are still grieving the loss of their husband and father.

Mr. McPhee was absolutely certain he was dying because of the hazards of his job.

During more than two decades investigating fires, he was never issued protective gear by the fire marshal's office. He wore a dust mask bought at Canadian Tire during his final years on the job because his breathing had become laboured and black mucous dripped from his nose.

Mr. McPhee may have been certain his job made him sick, but the Workers Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario is not.

In November, it turned down his request for compensation for his colon cancer, along with the claims of 74 firefighters, including 43-year-old Mark Johnston of Ottawa , who is dying of colon cancer.

The Ontario Professional Firefighters Association submitted the claim to the insurance board on behalf of Mr. McPhee.

Susan McPhee is utterly stunned that the insurance board could not see the connection between her husband's job and his illness.

She is also utterly broke.

Mr. McPhee retired in 1998 at age 58 when he discovered he had colon cancer. His widow is now living on $15,900 a year, 60 per cent of her husband's pension.

Yesterday, she remortgaged her home of 21 years to pay her husband's funeral bills and help pay down the credit cards. She had been a stay-at-home mom, but now she is trying to find work. She worries she has limited skills. She worked as a nanny when she was younger.

Marnie, 24, who is studying history at the University of Ottawa , has no financial support to continue her studies. Her dad paid for her third year of university before he died. Next year, she hopes to receive loans, but her future is uncertain.

Investigators for the Ontario fire marshal face many of the same risks as firefighters. Fire investigators are called to the scene of fires that kill and those that cause more than $500,000 in damage. They also investigate explosions and most cases of suspected arson.

Mr. McPhee was responsible for finding the cause of a fire, whether fraud, arson or accidental. He testified in hundreds of court cases involving arson.

He, like many firefighters, worked in the aftermath of fires, digging through smouldering and frequently toxic rubble. But he did not have access to a self-contained breathing apparatus. Fire investigator found deadlier dangers after quitting police.

Shelley Page, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Ontario Fire Marshal's office only began issuing protective gear, including self-contained breathing apparatus, in 2002.

Mrs. McPhee talked about the very present chemical hazards of his job, and how little protection he had.

Her husband carried fire debris and chemicals in his car. He didn't have an office. Fire investigators were required to work from home.

"The smell of the car was absolutely deplorable. It made you sick. He dug through fires with his hands, it sunk into his skin. I couldn't stand kissing him because of the sick chemical smell of his breath," Mrs. McPhee said.

"He'd come home coated in asbestos and we'd clean him up as best we could."

In particular, she said her husband investigated the cause of the huge 1979 Rideau Club fire. "Asbestos just rained down on top of him when he was picking through the scene."

Mr. McPhee also taught at the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst and used to test household goods to determine their burning point. He'd stand by as cooking oil, sofas, teflon pans, and plastic Christmas trees were set on fire. "He breathed in all that stuff."

He would arrive home, take off his clothes outside, hand them to his wife and she would rush them to the laundry to wash them. It usually took two or three washes to get rid of the smell.

Early yesterday morning, daughter Marnie couldn't sleep, so, instead, she wrote about what it was like to be the daughter of a fire investigator.

"When he walked in the door his eyes were bloodshot and he could hardly breathe. When I was a child, my parents would tell me I couldn't hug my dad until he changed and took a shower," she wrote. "Looking back, it seems our home constantly smelled of smoke and a nauseating and chemically laden odour lingered for days.

"My dad always coughed up black, sooty mucous. When he blew his nose, it was black. He said he had the taste of fire in his mouth."

Mrs. McPhee remains hopeful that the Workers Safety and Insurance Board will come through with some form of survivor pension for her family that might make up for lost wages.

Ontario Labour Minister Steve Peters told the Citizen on Monday that the insurance board was reviewing all colon cancer claims in light of new evidence gathered showing the increased risk of developing colon cancer among firefighters.

Mrs. McPhee hopes this would extend to the fire marshal investigators.

"Somebody has to be held responsible for what happened to him. He did dangerous, difficult work on behalf of the public."

In the meantime, Mrs. McPhee is in contact with other widows of fire investigators, including Lucie Knox.

Mrs. Knox's husband, David, 57, died last June.

Mr. Knox, who was also an Ottawa area fire marshal investigator, died of pulmonary fibrosis. He'd been a fire investigator for more than 22 years.

Mr. Knox never submitted a claim to the insurance board for compensation.

His wife said she is thinking about doing so herself, but is still grieving, and also thinks it might be futile. "Others haven't had much success."

Fire investigator found deadlier dangers after quitting police

Shelley Page, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2006

She is in debt because she had to hire a private nurse for her husband while he was dying. The couple have four children, one from their marriage, and three from previous marriages.

At her husband's funeral, Mrs. Knox said she warned young fire investigators to wear their new breathing apparatus, "or you're going to die, too."

The Ontario Fire Marshal's Office could not be reached for comment.

Falling Heroes: A Special Citizen Series

Sunday: What's killing Nepean 's firefighters?

Monday: Finding falling comrades: Ontario firefighters with cancer -- the search that started on a cocktail napkin.

Yesterday: Ontario will review some previously denied cancer claims for firefighters.

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