Houston Firefighters Who Died Of Job-Related Illnesses To Be Honored At National Memorial

At a solemn ceremony this weekend in Colorado, the names of nine Houston firefighters will be added to the International Association of Firefighters Memorial Wall. None of the men were killed in a fire, but they all died of diseases related to their jobs.

“I think traditionally what people think of when they think of firefighter fatalities on the fireground are building collapses and flashovers and the kind of things you see in the movies.”

That’s Houston Professional Firefighters Union President Jeff Caynon. He’s preparing for Saturday’s emotional ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the names of close to 150 fallen firefighters will be added to the international union’s memorial wall.

On that list are the names of nine Houston firefighters who’ve died over the past two years. Caynon says six of those firefighters died of cancer.  

“What we see in fires, in modern fires, as compared to 50 years ago, 100 years ago, there’s a whole lot more plastic in construction.  There are a lot of synthetics, and those synthetics give off, when they’re burned,  give off various chemicals.”

One of those firefighters was Anthony Tortorice. He died last year at the age of 58. Caynon says Tortorice became ill after helping out at Ground Zero following 9/11.  

“Folks that worked there on the pile have developed cancers at a much higher rate even than most firefighters.”

 Also on the list are three Houston firefighters who died of heart-related issues. One of those was Senior Fire Captain Thomas Dillion. The 49-year old Dillion collapsed last March while responding to a kitchen fire.  

“I mean, firefighters go from a situation where they’re completely at rest, to literally fighting for their lives and the lives of other people in a relatively short amount of time. It’s a lot of wear and tear on the system.”

The U.S. Fire Administration says of the 81 firefighters who died on duty last year, 48 died of heart attacks.  Here locally, the State Fire Marshal’s office says heart attacks have been the leading cause of death for Texas firefighters for close to two decades.

Rufus Summers oversees the firefighter training program at Houston Community College.  He says they’re well aware of the statistics.  

We have fitness training along with our fire training. We also do nutritional training as well. But we also have a lot of time and commitment put in on safety.”

Summers says they also spend a lot of time teaching rookie firefighters how to use new equipment designed to protect them from hazardous chemicals in the field.  

Meanwhile The Centers for Disease Control is currently doing a multi-year cancer study that includes about 30,000 current and former firefighters.

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Gail Delaughter

Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

From early-morning interviews with commuters to walks through muddy construction sites, Gail covers all aspects of getting around Houston. That includes walking, driving, cycling, taking the bus, and occasionally flying. Before she became transportation reporter in 2011, Gail hosted weekend programs for Houston Public Media. She's also covered courts in...

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