Fire Within

For almost 20 years, fire captain Gary Pykare had looked death in the eye, chuckled, and gone fishing.

But on May 12, the longtime business manager of the Phoenix firefighters' union died of cancer at his home in Cave Creek. He was 54.

On May 15, about 1,000 of Pykare's closest friends gathered at a west Phoenix church to mourn his death and to celebrate his life.

Fire trucks from around the Valley filled the parking lot.
Pykare long had served as an intermediary between the United Phoenix Firefighters and the Phoenix Fire Department administration, metaphorically putting out fires for years after his illness prevented him from riding a truck anymore.

He was a cool customer who wore a gold neck chain with a Superman medallion on it, a present his wife, Judy, gave him after he survived his first bout with cancer.

Pykare was a subject of a New Times story about a silent chemical assault on firefighters ("Careers in Ashes," August 3, 1988). The piece concluded that firefighters in Phoenix and around the nation--especially those veterans who spent years eating smoke and slogging through all sorts of spilled chemicals--are dying of cancer at an alarming rate.

"When you mix some of these concoctions under the heat," Pykare said at the time, "you come up with chemicals that no one's ever seen before."

A few years ago, Pykare lost in an attempt to file for workers' compensation benefits under a job-related cancer claim. Proving definitive links between a job and a dread disease are extremely difficult.

But Pykare and others--including Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini--have continued to seek coverage.

"A firefighter knows no fear," Pykare said a few years ago. "He kicks the shit out of whatever he finds. We tell ourselves we're invincible, nothing can beat us. That's what gets you through the day. And then, all of a sudden, you've got cancer. That does not compute."

Pykare joined the Phoenix Fire Department in September 1964, at the age of 23, years before the scuba-type masks called SCBAs replaced the canister masks that firefighters had worn for decades. The old masks filtered out carbon monoxide, but little else.

Veteran Phoenix firemen (until 1979, the department was all male) including Pykare had resisted the SCBAs, even as potent new chemicals proliferated. Pykare's work record included documented exposures to toxic substances in a west-side warehouse fire, an apartment-complex blaze and several other incidents.

When Pykare first contracted liposarcoma--soft-tissue cancer--at the age of 36, doctors gave him a 50-50 chance to survive five years. He lasted 18. Since 1979, Pykare served, in the words of Chief Brunacini, as "the department's Secretary of State for Human Affairs."

Brunacini spoke with great emotion about his friend at last week's Mass.
"When he was young, he was gung ho and carried himself with a certain swagger," Brunacini said, his voice breaking at times. "But he always got the job done. He was tough and he didn't ever snivel--ever. He relished life and he relished laughter, even after he got visited by a demon in the middle. Gary's ball took a funny bounce. Instead of getting the usual Phoenix Fire Department career bounce, he got cancer. But he fought cancer like he fought fires: He was aggressive, never defensive, and he fought with great purpose."

One of Pykare's best friends, union president Pat Cantelme, related a recent conversation to the hundreds of firefighters present.

"Gary asked me to remind you people of something," Cantelme said. "He wants you to remember what you told him in your interviews with him when you came on board, about what kind of firefighter you wanted to be. He told me to tell you that he remembers what you said, and that he's going to be looking down at you to make sure you're living up to what you said."

Pykare's survivors have asked that contributions in his memory be made to the Firefighters Cancer Fund.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin