The first responders who worked a 2012 jet crash in Virginia Beach are getting free cancer testing
Virginia Beach Fire Battalion Chief Norm Williams wasn’t on duty on April 6, 2012 — the day a jet from Oceana experienced engine failure over Virginia Beach.
Both pilots bailed out after dumping their fuel, and the jet crashed into an apartment building.
“The amazing thing is everyone was able to get out of the apartment complex okay,” Williams said.
But Williams worries his colleagues — firefighters who responded to the crash — could still die because of their exposure to dangerous chemicals that day.
He’s spearheading efforts for the Virginia Beach department to test all current firefighters with the Galleri multi-pronged cancer screening test. They’re following in the footsteps of Chesapeake, who tested its department at the end of March. The test can detect more than 50 kinds of cancer with a simple blood draw.
It takes two weeks to get results.
Chesapeake declined to share details of their firefighters’ test results, citing privacy laws.
Nationally, firefighters experience cancer at a 9% higher rate than non-firefighters, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Most of the cancers firefighters get are occupational, caused by some sort of condition at work. Under Virginia law, only 9 types of cancer — pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian, breast, colon, brain, or testicular — are able to be classified as occupational, and then only if the diagnosed employee worked in an exposed position for five or more years.
Cancer-causing chemicals aren’t just in jet crashes — firefighters are exposed to toxins like arsenic or asbestos while fighting blazes, and even their turnout gear contains “forever chemicals.” The only tool to fight the chemicals in their gear is frequent washing, and minimizing the time wearing it. There's no effective replacement on the market, said Williams.
"It would be similar to like, if I gave you a ballistic vest and, in order for it to actually stop bullets, I have to put this chemical in it," Williams said. "And the only way to get your vest without that chemical — you could take that chemical out, but it doesn't stop bullets."
Other harmful chemicals — like jet fuel — were in abundance at the crash scene. Even with decontamination procedures, it's hard to get rid of everything.
Williams said he fears that’s what happened in 2012.
“We've had a few firefighters who actually responded to this crash that developed several different types of cancer,” he said. ”Some of them are actually pretty rare types of cancer — young, healthy guys.”
Captain Matt "Chevy" Chiaverotti was one of those young guys. He died last month after battling thyroid cancer the department called occupational.
Firefighter Joseph Barakey helped with hazmat containment on the day of the 2012 crash.
“I'm pretty sure everybody that was on that call — since we've had guys come down with cancer that’re young — are very concerned. So the talk around the firehouse, if it just catches some early where we don't go to another funeral like Chevy, then it's going to help out," Barakey said.
Virginia Beach city government agreed to pay for all current firefighters to get the Galleri test for free — as well as everyone, retired, current or a volunteer, who responded to the 2012 crash.
The test costs just under $950 without insurance.