Fighting Cancer When They’re Not Fighting Fires

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DALLAS (CBS11 I-TEAM) – They were young, strong and riding high on a big red fire truck in Dallas, never a thought of the doom that would come in later years.

The Dallas firemen were Jeff Delbert, James “Hollywood” Adams, James Odom and a fourth firefighter, who the CBS11 I-Team is not identifying because of the wishes of his widow.

More than a decade ago, the four men were sent on a call where a transformer fire that spewed an unknown substance on their protective suits.

It was no big deal. They didn’t even tell their wives about it when they returned home, their gear covered in grime.

There is no certainty that particular run played a role in their final fates. And certainly they were dispatched to many fires after that.

But the substance in that transformer, the one that sprayed all over them, turned out to be PCBs – an ugly ingredient of cancer.

And now, for the brave occupants on that speeding fire truck:

“All four men have died of cancer,” Delbert’s wife, Dena, told the I-Team, in a group interview with other family members of the firemen.

Delbert was 36 when he was diagnosed with brain cancer, a common affliction for firefighters exposed to deadly toxins.

The news came when the daughter he’d always wanted was only four-weeks-old.

“She was only three when he died,” said Dena Delbert-Plummer, crying. “He really adored her.”

The I-Team talked with Dena; as well as Odom’s wife, Brenda; Adams’ wife, Debbie, and his daughter, Amy King, where they shared their heartfelt stories of loss.

They said they wished they had known – and their firefighting loved ones had known – the hidden dangers of cancer for so many firefighters.

Now, there are recent studies by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that say firefighters are at a much higher risk of getting cancer than the general public.

There is also a state law meant to provide benefits and compensation to those firefighters and their families because “cancer is known to be associated with fire fighting…”

However, the I-Team has learned through multiple interviews that more than two dozen firefighters – all with cancer – have had their claims for relief rejected by the city of Dallas.

They are in the process of appealing.

“It’s very torturous,” Jim McDade, president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, told the I-Team.

“The city just denies their claims automatically, and then we start the appeals process and start fighting it,” McDade said.

It took Dena Delbert-Plummer more than seven years to get benefits as the widow of a fireman taken by cancer. She said the city finally gave up appealing every time she won a favorable ruling in court.

“I was determined… Dallas was going to be made to live up to this law and protect firefighters,” she told the I-Team. “I felt it was Dallas’ place to step up and honor these men,” she said.

A spokesman for Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and the City of Dallas declined to comment for this report.

But Dallas firefighters tell the I-Team the new fire chief, David Coatney, is aware of the problem and working on ways to address it.

Meanwhile, the loved ones we spoke to said they hope the City of Dallas will do more to prevent other firefighters from getting cancer, such as better awareness and more protective equipment.

“Hopefully,” Debbie Adams said, “they will listen and the City of Dallas will take note so there are not more widows sitting up here.”

If you want to reach CBS11′s Senior Investigative Producer Jack Douglas Jr., you can email him at jdouglas@cbs.com. If you want to reach CBS11′s Investigative reporter Ginger Allen, you can email her at gingera@ktvt.com.


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