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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Siberian Firemen Battle Legacy of Toxic Blaze

ANGARSK, East Siberia -- Almost seven years ago, 740 young firemen battled a blaze that raged for 10 days at a cable factory near Irkutsk and turned hundreds of tons of plastic, oil and metal into a concoction of deadly vapors.

Now, most of these firemen are facing a different kind of battle - a painful struggle to overcome the mysterious illnesses plaguing them and what they see as bureaucratic indifference to their plight.

The fire broke out in the predawn darkness of Dec. 24, 1992 at Irkutskkabel in Shelekhov, a grim industrial city of 54,000 about 20 kilometers southwest of Irkutsk.

In the course of the next 10 days, 1,240 tons of plastics, dozens of tons of oil, heavy metals, paints and 300 tons of oily paper used to wrap wire cable were consumed by the fire that burned at temperatures over 1,000 degrees.

As they worked to put out the blaze, the poorly equipped firefighters breathed in the noxious gases, dust and deadly dioxins that it spewed into the air.

The dust and smoke cloud from the fire rose as high as 100 meters, and you could smell it from at least 6 kilometers away, said Sergei, 34, who was the head of a firefighting unit that rushed in from Angarsk that morning. His team worked for 14 hours at the Shelekhov fire.

The firemen had no protection aside from their regular heavy-duty tarpaulin suits. On the second morning of the blaze, even those few firemen who had breathing apparatuses were ordered to take them off.

Anatoly Byvaltsev, a former deputy head of the Irkutsk regional fire department and one of the fire commanders during the Shelekhov fire, said the oxygen tanks were too dangerous for the firemen to carry because of highly flammable oil in the plant.

One day, Byvaltsev said he saw one of his men collapse with foam coming out of his mouth. By that time, dozens of firemen had fallen sick.

Shelekhov had only a small fire station, and firemen from the cities of Irkutsk, Angarsk and Usolye Sibirskoye rushed in to help. Among them were 240 cadets of the Irkutsk Fire School. "The cadets, they had nothing but their cotton uniforms to protect them," said Sergei, who didn't want his last name published because he is fighting an uphill battle to certify his illnesses as related to the 1992 fire.

The fire units were finally pulled off of the site in January 1993, but the fire was still not dead. "We poured and poured water over it. And in the end, it just froze over," recalls Oleg Zhernov, a firemen from Shelekhov. Over the next five months, his unit repeatedly rushed to the factory to put out fires that burst out from underneath the thick crust of melted plastic and metal covering the disaster site.

Since the fire, more than 200 firefighters have been hospitalized at the Institute for Health in the Workplace and Human Ecology in Angarsk and been diagnosed with chemical-related damage to their central and peripheral nervous systems.

According to doctors, researchers and the firemen themselves, some suffered brain damage, and most complained of fatigue, pains and numbness in their arms and legs. Some suffered from ulcers, blackouts, skyrocketing blood pressure. One man fainted while riding a trolley.

Some firemen came to the medical clinic days after the fire. For others, it took years to recognize something was wrong. Now, some of the disabled young men check into the hospital several times a year just to ease their suffering, said Oleg Lakhman, the head physician at the Angarsk health institute.

Even though the firemen receive treatment, their health keeps deteriorating, researchers at the institute said.

The scientists still have no answers to what exactly caused their sicknesses and likely never will have, said Nina Matorova, a senior researcher at the Angarsk institute who has studied and treated the firemen.

Most of the sick firemen's medical histories list "complex chemical intoxication" as the source of their pains. And so far, there is no exact treatment in sight.

For about 100 firemen, researchers have established that their diseases were related to the 1992 fire. Without this formal medical diagnosis, and even in some cases with it, they have been unable to get extra benefits or retire early.

Three years ago, some of the sick firemen felt they had come up against a wall in their struggle to get medical help and compensation, and they formed the Union of Firemen for those who have suffered in the line of duty.

Now, every day, Andrei Volosunov, the most vocal activist of the union, unlocks a little office hidden along a dark hallway in the Irkutsk regional fire-service headquarters.

He said many of the ill firemen who have been unable to get the paperwork documenting the cause of their sickness have been pushed out of their jobs.

At least 16 firemen have died at a young age since fighting the Shelekhov fire, Volosunov said, but the cause of their deaths has not been studied. Their death certificates say things like liver failure, cancer or heart disease.

Yelena Grosheva, director of the Baikal Toxicology Institute, said that the firemen's health problems are similar to those suffered by the crews who handled the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1996.

This spring, blood samples from six Irkutsk firemen were tested at the Medical Radiology Research Center, which studied the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster. The samples showed a "stunningly" high level of genetic and chromosome mutations and changes to the immune system, said Vladimir Zaichik of the center, located in Obninsk, near Moscow.

Analysis of the blood from at least 100 firemen is necessary to establish the extent of immune-system, oncological and genetic damage, the researchers said. But such a study would cost $40,000 and they don't have the money.

"Seven years has passed, and still no one can help them," Grosheva said.

In 1998, researchers worked with the Irkutsk regional administration to develop a social and medical program to help the firemen, but it has been held up in the regional parliament.

The Irkutsk regional fire service filed a suit for damages against the cable factory, which has since restarted production, but it lost the suit.

The firemen said they are tired of waiting for help and are suspicious of researchers. "Listen, do you think I will let anyone use our blood as raw material for their scientific research, and then just abandon the guys and our newborn babies?" Volosunov almost screamed.

Grosheva said further studies are necessary to determine whether some of the firemen should be warned that they could have a higher risk of having children with genetic deformities.

Already, Grosheva said, at least five of their children conceived and born since since the fire suffer from liver diseases, but more studies are necessary to establish a link between the fathers' and children's health problems.

"This is just the beginning," muttered Lakhman of the Angarsk institute, predicting that many more children will be born with genetic defects.

Even without studies, the firemen said they have already been told they might have reproductive problems.

"They told us in Angarsk that it's not good for us to have children. And they did it with a half-smile," said Igor Kondratyev, 31, an Irkutsk firemen. The news - combined with his other health problems - destroyed his marriage. "My wife told me: 'Why do I need you, all weak, sick and twisted?" he said.