A decade later, firefighters wonder how Queen City Barrel fire could impact their health

Linking ailments to any one blaze is tough to do

CINCINNATI – Lt. David Herth describes the Queen City Barrel blaze as "one of the most exciting fires" he has fought in his more than 26 years with the Cincinnati Fire Department.

The five-alarm fire had towering flames, billowing smoke and a fireball that just barely missed some of his colleagues.

But Herth has more than dramatic stories to tell from that day a decade ago.

He also has concerns about the long-term health impacts of fighting a fire without knowing exactly what hazards he was exposed to on Aug. 19, 2004.

"I don't think there was any fear of what was burning at the time," said Herth, who is now 52 and still stationed at the Lower Price Hill firehouse not far from where Queen City Barrel once stood. "But after you think about it, what kind of chemicals were in those barrels? That weighed on your mind after the fact."

All these years later, Cincinnati Fire Department officials and leaders at the Cincinnati Fire Fighters Union Local 48 still can't be sure whether firefighters who spent hours on the scene of the Queen City Barrel fire have health problems as a result. The fire started around 6:30 p.m. with crews putting out hot spots prior to demolition for a couple days after that. About 160 firefighters responded in total, and investigators were never able to determine where or how the fire started. It caused $5 million in damage.

This photo of the Queen City Barrel fire was taken around 8 p.m. Aug. 19, 2004, from the empty apparatus bay inside Cincinnati Fire Department's Engine 17. Photo by Joseph Bredestege.

Two firefighters who were there have since retired with different neurological problems. One had symptoms that mimicked ALS with muscle weakness across his body. Another had breathing problems because of a weak diaphragm. But officials couldn't pinpoint either of the conditions to any specific exposure, said District Chief Marc Monahan.

A few others have reported diagnoses of prostate cancer, but those haven't been linked definitively to the Queen City Barrel fire either, said Ken Kiefer, a retired Cincinnati Fire Department captain who now works as Local 48's workers' compensation and pension representative.

"The latency period on a lot of these cancers is 20-plus years," Kiefer said. "It's complex."

Complex and dangerous.

WCPO Insiders can read more about the dangers that firefighters faced at the Queen City Barrel fire, how technology has changed what first responders know about burning commercial buildings and what the Cincinnati Fire Department has done over the past decade to offer firefighters more protection.

This article is part of of the series Rising from the Ashes, in which WCPO remembers the Queen City Barrel fire a decade later.  We invite you to explore photos, an interactive timeline as well as articles about the Lower Price Hill neighborhood and business owner, Eddie Paul, who is still working in the barrel-cleaning business, at www.wcpo.com/QCBarrelFire.

PHOTOS: The fire, from the Cincinnati Fire Department's perspective

PHOTOS: The people of Price Hill 

 

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About this Project

A WCPO team of reporters interviewed firefighters, residents, environmental experts; reviewed hundreds of pages of investigative records and EPA findings as well as analyzed Hamilton County death records. 

  • Dan Monk, reporter
  • Lucy May, reporter
  • Elissa Yancey, contributing environmental reporter
  • Keith Rutowski and Emily Maxwell, photographers
  • Mark Nichols, data specialist
  • Brian Niesz, multimedia producer/designer
  • Anne Hallilwell, interactive timeline
  • Maxim Alter, then and now graphic
  • Chris Graves and David Holthaus, editors