Arizona's Worst Neighbor

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A month later, on a Tuesday evening, Bertleson heard a weird noise. She thought maybe a plane from Williams Gateway Airport was going to crash.

It turned out to be another explosion at the plant less than two miles from her home. "With all the work that's gone into making TRW safe, I never thought it would happen again," she says.

Three employees were severely burned. A preliminary investigation by the Mesa Fire Department shows the blast was triggered as the workers attempted to dismantle a pipe as part of a demolition project. The probe also showed that TRW had again violated work-site laws because it failed to conduct a safety inspection before using a cutting torch on the pipe. It was the identical error that had caused the fatal fire in 1994.

Fire investigators believe had an inspection been performed, sodium azide residue that ignited inside the pipe would have been detected. On March 21, the Mesa Fire Department told TRW to stop all demolition work until the investigation into the incident was complete and until a "joint action plan and remedy" could be identified.

Cameli says the fire department is continuing its investigation. Further action won't come until inquiries by TRW, OSHA, the Attorney General's Office and the EPA are finished.

TRW calls the explosion an isolated incident and says it is continuing its investigation into the blast.

Meanwhile, the victims have been released from the hospital. A physician said they may suffer vision problems in the future.

Shortly after the explosion, Bertleson got on the phone. She called Dave Nichols, the TRW manager who once worked for Mesa Fire, to voice a complaint.

She called Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker and asked that the plant be shut down. She called the attending physician at Maricopa Medical Center to inform him about the dangers of sodium azide.

At home in Phoenix, Joy West couldn't believe it when she read in the newspaper about the latest explosion at TRW. "I thought, 'God, how many things can this company do?'" she says.

Her hands have healed and she has nearly full use of them. She left TRW a year after her accident; she says that with burned hands, a hearing problem and a raspy voice, she was in no position to look for another job for a while.

She moved to San Diego, then to Phoenix to sell cars, a less risky job. At age 40, she worries about what health problems she may encounter in the future as a result of her exposure to sodium azide.

"I looked as hard as I could to see what long-term effects there might be for me," she says. "But there isn't any information on it."

West says she wants to contact the latest employees injured at TRW to offer her condolences or any assistance she can give them. "I wonder what protective equipment they had on," she says.

Meanwhile, in the far reaches of the southeast Valley, Bertleson keeps writing letters, making phone calls. She keeps her video camera in a little backpack, and when she goes somewhere in her car (an older model with no air bags, thank you), she tosses it in.

With "For Sale" signs going up in the neighborhood all around her -- and few properties actually selling -- the question arises: Why doesn't she and her husband just move?

Because she doesn't want to give up.

"This is our home. We were here first," Bertleson says. "And this is a problem that needs to be solved, not only for me, but for everybody."

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin