By Tim Prudente
The Maryland Gazette
ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, W. Va. — Ask Charlie Parks about his friend and fellow firefighter, David E. Fowler, and the words come out in rush: tireless, dedicated.
Consider the 1979 house fire, three-alarm, in Severna Park. Flames screamed from the basement, the windows — the whole house engulfed. Firefighters worked more than two hours. Some sat exhausted on the lawn. But there was Fowler, in full-turnout gear, working undaunted in the summer heat — manning hose lines, throwing ladders, ripping holes in the roof.
Parks prefers to remember Fowler this way. It's easier than to dwell on the cancer that robbed Fowler of his career and strength, eventually causing the death of the former Pasadena resident Saturday at his West Virginia home.
"When you pulled up to an incident, you knew David Fowler could be counted on," Parks said.
Fowler spent nearly 30 years as a firefighter in Anne Arundel County. A Severna Park High School graduate, he lived in Pasadena and spent much of his career working out of the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company.
Fowler was forced into early retirement after being diagnosed with cancer. He died at 59.
"He didn't retire willingly," said Ken Fowler, his son and the football coach at Northeast High School. "The fire department meant everything to my father. It's terrible that it was taken away from him. He didn't go out on his own terms."
Fowler was one of several firefighters trained in Millersville in the 1970s to develop brain cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other forms of cancer. Family members of those firefighters have long wondered if transformer oil their husbands and fathers used in training exercises could be the culprit. In those days, firefighters didn't use the breathing equipment that is required today.
Back then, trainers would fill a pool called "the pit" with water, pour the oil on top and light the mixture to recreate hazardous materials fires. The oil contained polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs, which when burned give off carcinogenic smoke. The federal government banned production of PCBs in 1977.
The state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene decided about five years ago that an in-depth study wouldn't be cost effective. Cancer clusters are difficult to prove, and firefighters are exposed to dangerous chemicals regularly.
Since then, the issue has largely faded from public consciousness, leaving firefighters and their families with the realization that they may never know what made them sick.
"The reality is the government is probably never going to do any type of study because they don't want to have it come back and find them legally liable," said Del. Bob Costa, R-Deale, and firefighter out of the Harwood-Lothian Fire Station. "One of the reasons is because it's going to be hard to prove that these carcinogens were the exact cause of death."
Ken, though, remains convinced these training practices led to death of his father and others. In 2000, John F. Dull, of Edgewater, was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a form of brain cancer. He was 50 when he died. At least four other firefighters died of brain cancer in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"These guys put their lives on the line and, ultimately, this is what they get," Ken said. "The whole thing makes me angry. People wanted a cheap way to get rid of hazardous material and they didn't take precautions.
"I mean, my dad was 59. That's way too young for somebody that gave so much to pass away. He was cheated out of so much of his life."
Costa said training practices have changed, so it's unlikely the issue will be revisited.
"Will something come as a result of David's death? I doubt it. But I wish it would," he said.
David Fowler moved with his wife from his Pasadena home about five years ago. In West Virginia, he pushed back against the cancer, looking for reasons to endure — hugging his first grandchild, watching the annual football rivalry between Chesapeake and Northeast high schools, the traditional holiday chess match against his son.
Soon after Christmas, though, the pain grew, Ken said. His father suffered, couldn't walk or talk as fluid filled his lungs.
The family pressed around him, telling him it was OK to let go. Saturday his medication was increased. David relaxed, then died.
In death, pain was gone from his face, Ken said. He looked years younger.
Ken pauses now, remembering. Days before Christmas, he made the trip to visit his father and mother. He arrived with the Polish kielbasa his father always craved. And they sat around the family chess board, one last game.
David Fowler won.
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