Exposure to toxins may be cause of Spokane fire chiefs’ deaths

Firefighter deaths from job-related diseases are becoming more common, the fire marshal said.

By Will Campbell / The Spokesman-Review

For the second time in less than a week, the Spokane Valley Fire Department has announced the death of a former fire captain, and again, work-related exposure to toxins is suspected as the cause.

On Friday, the department announced that former Capt. Tim Cruger, 67, died of cancer caused from exposure to smoke while on the job. Five days later, on Wednesday, the department announced the death of former Capt. David Phay, 57, adding that an investigation is underway to determine if Phay’s death was linked to work-related toxins encountered on the job.

Phay died on Dec. 17, according to a news release from the Spokane Valley Fire Department. During his 28-year career he worked as a firefighter, paramedic, lieutenant and captain in Spokane Valley. He retired in October 2015.

Phay’s obituary stated he was diagnosed with a rare disease in May 2018, possibly caused by cancer. He is survived by his wife, Michelle, his children Justin, Jason, Riley, Christian, Seth and Jared, as well as six grandchildren.

Cruger died on Dec. 24, according to the department’s Friday announcement. During his 29-year career, he served as an engineer, lieutenant and captain. He retired in 2015. Soon thereafter he developed kidney cancer, which metastasized to his colon, lungs and brain, according to a Spokane Valley Fire Department Facebook post.

Cruger’s father, Melvin Cruger, a former Spokane Fire Department captain, died on Dec. 6. The cause of his death is not currently known, but he was in his 90s, said Spokane Valley Engine 7 Capt. George Hedebeck, a vice president of the Spokane Valley firefighters union.

Both Phay’s and Cruger’s deaths are considered line-of-duty deaths, according to Washington state occupational disease laws. The Spokane Valley Fire Department is waiting on autopsy results to see if cancer was the root cause of Phay’s illness, Hedebeck said. Regardless of the result, however, his death qualifies as a line-of-duty death because it falls within a 60-month window after his retirement.

Phay died from hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), a rare disease more common in infants and young children, according to Hedebeck, but adults can get it too. In adults, cancer or infections can cause HLH.

Phay’s memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at Advent Lutheran Church, 13009 E. Broadway Ave., in Spokane Valley. The date of Cruger’s memorial service has not been announced.

Greg Rogers, fire marshal for the Spokane Valley Fire Department, said firefighter deaths from job-related diseases are becoming more common, but since firefighters have become more aware of the problem, they have changed their culture to work more safely by adopting new technologies.

“It’s one of the biggest things that our industry is going through right now,” he said. “It’s really changing things.”

Spokane Valley now has a second set of gear for each firefighter, and after one set is exposed to smoke, it goes into “extractors” that wash out carcinogens.

“Twenty-five years ago, you would only have one set of gear. You came back from a fire and hosed it off and were going out for a next call 40 minutes later,” he said. “Now, after a crew has gone in to fight a fire, we try to cycle them out first and shower and clean up.”

He also said new clothing materials that firefighters use are better at reducing exposure to carcinogens.

In an effort to curb exposure, the Spokane Valley Fire Department has been buying more extractors and second sets of gear. The department is also getting $600,000 worth of new self-contained breathing apparatus equipment in the next two months, Hedebeck said.

“All of these things were implemented before the recent deaths, but (Phay’s and Cruger’s) exposure was years ago,” Hedebeck said. “Both worked in an era where the protections we have in place were not in place then. It was cool to have a black, sooty helmet. It was cool to have a dirty mask — we’re trying to change that behavior.”

As a firefighter, Phay worked as a mechanic on respirators, a job that could likely lead to more exposure.

“These things that we carry into every fire, Dave would take apart and repair,” Hedebeck said. “In essence he was exposed to every fire.”

After retirement, Phay taught CPR and was an instructor to high school students at the Spokane Valley Tech Fire Science program, according to a news release. He was also a director of the Spokane Valley Firefighters Benevolent Association nonprofit.

Rogers said the department has taken the deaths hard.

“The biggest thing for us is two members died this close together,” he said. “We hadn’t even had time to grieve over one and we’ve already had another.”

He remembered Phay as someone who’s emblematic of firefighters.

“He definitely made a big impression on everybody in the department,” Rogers said. “He’s an example of what our profession should be and what it should be about.”

Talk to us

More in Northwest

In this image taken Jan. 16, 2013, two people walk the beach at Discovery Park in Seattle. At 534 acres, Discovery Park is the largest park in the city and it features seaside bluffs, views of the Puget Sound, trails, a light house and a beach.  (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes )
Operating error sends wastewater into Puget Sound

The public is advised to avoid contact with the water at Discovery Park, which is near the sewage spill.

A lone man walks a dog, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, near apartments in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday, March 23, 2020, ordered nonessential businesses to close and the state's more than 7 million residents to stay home in efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle rents down 20% since start of COVID-19 pandemic

Median rents in Seattle were $1,395 for a one-bedroom and $1,739 for a two-bedroom.

FILE - In this May 15, 2019 file photo, the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is seen from the air near Colfax, Wash. Environmental groups are vowing to continue their fight to remove four dams on the Snake River in Washington state they say are killing salmon that are a key food source for endangered killer whales. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Study looks at impact of ocean and dams on salmon runs

Fish recovery efforts should focus on the ocean, not on freshwater, says the BPA-funded scientist.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman talks to reporters in her office, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Wyman was talking about a series of election- and ballot-security bills her office is asking the Washington Legislature to consider during the current session. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington secretary of state certifies election results

Joe Biden will receive the state’s 12 electoral votes at the Electoral College on Dec. 14.

Visitors view photos of people who were killed by police in Washington State and elsewhere, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, inside what has been named the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone in Seattle. Police have pulled back from a part of the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood near the department's East Precinct after recent clashes with people protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Lawmakers, activists set ambitious agenda for police reform

The bills being drafted represent a broad overhaul of policing and police accountability in Washington.

This series of screenshots taken from an iPhone with COVID-19 exposure notifications turned on for Washington state shows some of the information presented to iPhone users who are considering opting in to a new statewide coronavirus exposure notification program that was launched Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, in Washington state that uses smartphone technology in the ongoing effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People with Apple iPhones can now enable the 'exposure notifications' feature that is already in their phone's settings, and Android devices can download the app, called Washington Exposure Notifications. Use of the service is voluntary and users can opt out at any time. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington launches statewide COVID-19 notification app

Modeling predicted significant decreases in infections and deaths if at least 15% of people use the app.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at Rideau Cottage during the COVID pandemic in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)
Canada: US border measures to last until virus under control

About 400,000 people crossed the world’s longest international border each day before the pandemic.

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2019 file photo Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, left, looks on as Suzi LeVine, right, the state's Employment Security Department Commissioner, talks to reporters at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The state of Washington is calling in the National Guard to help process unemployment benefit claims as officials grapple with a backlog caused in part by a fraud ring that stole more than half a billion dollars in aid, officials said Thursday, June 11, 2020. LeVine said that Gov. Jay Inslee approved the deployment of troops who will start assisting her team next week as it tries to reduce the unemployment claim backlog.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren,File)
Washington state auditor warns unemployment agency on audits

She’s accused of hindering a probe regarding the theft of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Prosecutors: Hate crimes on the rise in King County

Two years ago, there were 30 hate crimes in King County. So far in 2020, the number is up to 51.

Most Read