A Firefighter's Wake

The mourners at last Thursday's wake for firefighter Dale Brandt paused at a table laden with his mementoes.

There were photos of sixteen-year Phoenix Fire Department veteran Brandt and his partners, a pair of aviator sunglasses, a tape of Dirty Dancing (his favorite record), an essay about him written by one of his two daughters, and an old tee shirt inscribed "Shit happens."

That had been Dale Brandt's attitude since he learned in late 1987 that he had terminal brain cancer. "It's the luck of the draw, pal," he told New Times for a story last summer about the high rate of cancer among firefighters. "You'd be a fool to take on a job if you knew you were going to die of cancer before your fortieth birthday. And that you got it at work."

The end for Brandt came Easter Sunday. He was 38. The wake drew hundreds of people from the tightly knit community of firefighters.

Pat Cantelme, president of the United Firefighters Association, confessed to the crowd that he hadn't known what to say to the dying Brandt in the past year: "It was hard to see him and say, `How are you doing?' when you knew that he was dying, that's what he was doing."

And Cantelme voiced what many firefighters were thinking when he told them: "It is believed that the cancer which finally ended Dale's life resulted from toxic chemicals which he and his long-time partner, David Sanchez, were exposed to on a fire call."

Sanchez was listening from the back of the room at Firefighters Hall in north Phoenix. He contracted testicular and lymphatic cancer last year, but chemotherapy has beaten back the disease so far, and he's still on the job as a captain at northside Fire Station 17. By last summer, neither Sanchez nor Brandt could remember that possibly fateful April 1977 assignment to clean up a nitric-acid spill in South Phoenix. Brandt had told a reporter: "That's like asking me if I remember going to the bathroom on a certain date."

The wake was a mixture of warm memories of Brandt and frightening reminders of the highly possible link between firefighting and cancer. Mike Bielecki, president of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, recalled that Brandt--one of the Phoenix department's original paramedics--saved the life of Bielecki's father after a heart attack. "My father lived for seven years after Dale came through for him," Bielecki said, "and during that time, my dad and I became friends. Dale was a decent man, a decent, decent man."

Bielecki also praised Brandt as a "combat firefighter" who paid the ultimate price for being aggressive at his job. "He took the hits, we all take the risks," Bielecki said, "and you know you're taking the risks. In a very real way, any one of us can be the next Dale Brandt."

Bielecki noted that a study funded last year by the Arizona legislature to look into the incidence of cancer in firefighters is just getting started. "We hope that $100,000 study is going to answer some pretty big questions we have on our minds," he said. "We don't have many answers right now."

Phoenix city councilmember Duane Pell, a former firefighter who worked with Brandt years ago at a downtown station, didn't have answers either. "The question is why this would happen to Dale," Pell said. "I don't know why. I can't offer any reason why. There must be a reason."

After Pell's remarks, a firefighter played Taps, and many in the hall broke down and cried. And then they went home.

As Bielecki had told the gathering: "We are fragile creatures, all of us, and there are going to be more ceremonies like this in the future."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin