The cancer spread through Jack Bruns’ body like smoke through a burning building, drifting from his sinuses to his spinal fluid to his lungs in a matter of days.
A nosebleed that wouldn’t stop led to a doctor’s visit, followed by radiation, then two surgeries in three weeks, but nothing could slow the cancer’s spread.
Jack, then 59, a Lincoln firefighter and fire inspector for 35 years, was a big man whose booming voice carried across the gym at Lincoln Northeast High during his sons' wrestling matches.
But on June 3, 2001, a little over a month after his diagnosis, Jack lay in a hospital bed in the ICU at St. Elizabeth's, the booming voice gone, along with his left eye, taken by the surgeries.
That morning the doctors said there was nothing more they could do, so the family gathered around Jack's hospital bed, the heart monitor's beep filling the room.
Two of his sons, Gary and Alan, stood side by side.
Gary, the youngest of Jack's three boys, shares his dad’s linebacker build, and watched as his father -- who despite his fluctuating work schedule only missed two of his sons' wrestling meets -- began to fade.
Alan, a Lincoln firefighter like his father, watched as his best friend, the man who taught him about motorcycles and cars and encouraged him to fight fires, the man who had a bushy brown mustache like his own, drifted further into sleep.
“Dad’s strong; he can beat anything,” Alan had thought when he heard about the fast-spreading cancer.
“You don’t think your dad’s going to die,” Gary says.
* * *
That blue one, that sky blue Ford: It belongs to Dallas Fletcher.
From his deck just off of Nebraska 15 in Valparaiso, Dallas, 36, stares at the pickup parked in his backyard, the soft twang of Jason Aldean filtering into the thick July afternoon air.
His father taught him years ago that if it means something to you, you keep it, even if it needs a little fixing.
And that’s why Dallas, a Lincoln firefighter, still has that truck from high school.
The one he and his best friend cruised in back in the '90s. It doesn’t run too well anymore, but his buddy was killed in a car accident a few years back, and when Dallas sees that pickup, he sees his best friend.
“Just never wanted to get rid of it, ya know?” he says, itching his auburn sideburns, his black Lincoln Fire cutoff exposing a tattoo on his forearm: “Till my last day.”
“So I just keep it around.”
Like the other pickup in his backyard, the 1987 black Chevy he's been working on for his wife’s grandfather. And the 1977 Chevelle in one of his two garages, which he hopes to have ready for his oldest son’s prom next May.
Dallas is a fixer, and when he sees the rising number of cancer deaths in firefighters -- the men who raised him -- he must try and fix it.
He knows what he’s breathed in. He knows what’s happened to Lincoln firefighters, like Jack Bruns. He knows he could be next. But Dallas, the fixer, is out to stop the trend before something happens to him, or even his 8-year-old son, already vowing to become his father, running around the yard putting out fires all day long.
* * *
What was once a silent killer, cancer is now easily discussed by firefighters in the station house.
A 2014 study by the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine surveyed firefighters in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago and looked at the relationship between cancer and U.S. firefighters from 1950 to 2011. The study showed that firefighters are 12 percent more prone to any type of cancer and 18 percent more likely to die from cancer. More specifically, digestive cancers kill firefighters 18 to 34 percent more often than non-firefighters, and firefighters are more than twice as likely to die from mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive cancer which commonly develops in the lungs of people exposed to asbestos.
A similar study completed in 2001 found 500 of 2,220 line-of-duty deaths in Philadelphia over a 50-year period -- 22.5 percent -- were cancer-related. The same study showed that out of 10,695 firefighters from Chicago, Fairfax, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, 1,920 firefighters -- or 17.9 percent -- were expected to die from cancer.
The reasons, Lincoln Battalion Chief Derald Murrell says, are too many to count.
It could be repeated exposure to heat and toxins, or improper safety, or even just the sheer number of fires.
“It’s so difficult not to be exposed,” Murrell said. “And we’ve had more fires now than ever. So you got guys going out there more.”
And the wood isn’t just wood anymore, Murrell says. Decks are coated with finishes containing copper naphthenate and petroleum solvents. Fires inside houses burn up toy cars, TVs and computer monitors, giving off a black soot smoke from burning polystyrene.
“You get a whiff of that crap and you’ll be hacking it up for days,” Dallas said.
There’s no way of knowing, but for the firefighters who knew Jack Bruns, a combination of those factors may have caused his cancer and ultimate death. As a fire inspector, Bruns got the worst of the smoke, the worst of the toxins, as studies would later show.
In the hearse outside St. Mary’s Catholic Church on K Street the day of their father’s funeral, the brothers weren’t thinking about the cause.
Alan and Gary didn’t see their father’s death coming. Not one month after his diagnosis.
Meningitis was what eventually killed Jack Bruns. But it was a byproduct of the malignant melanoma in his sinuses.
Gary looked out the window onto K Street at the three lanes of traffic blocked off, and at the fire rigs and firefighters dressed in their formal navy blues.
Walking toward the church, Gary realized he had more family than the people sitting in the first few rows of the church. The men and women dressed in blue would be there for him in the most trying of times.
The 25-year-old was set to deploy to Iraq in a few weeks, and the walk to the church cemented it. When he came back, he’d do right by his dad. He’d make him proud and become a firefighter.
And a year later, he did.
One of the first things he did was put a picture of his father riding a motorcycle on the inside of his helmet, where he could always keep a close watch.
* * *
Dallas Fletcher doesn’t have one moment of his life he considers his happiest. He has six.
“The births of all five of my children, and meeting my wife,” he says.
And of the six happiest moments, Dallas’ middle child Brandt, 8, looks, acts, talks, mimics his dad the most. So similar it's scary, says Dallas’ wife, Trisha, and his father Richard, a volunteer firefighter in Valparaiso.
“They’re identical,” Richard says.
Both are blue-eyed and shy, and constantly at the fire station.
As a kid, wherever Richard was, Dallas was not far behind; be it at Wildwood Lake catching bass or in the fire station at a weekly meeting.
When Dallas turned 16, he’d drive his sky blue Ford, then painted black, out to watch his dad and his team in action.
“That’s when I knew, for sure, he’d be one,” Richard said.
The day he turned 18, Dallas signed up for the Valparaiso volunteer fire department.
He's kept all the helmets he’s been issued during his career, organized neatly in the corner of his basement next to the first fire outfit he wore as a kid: a long orange coat with a number 99 patch on the chest and big black boots. That play gear shielded third-grade Dallas from countless fake fires in his front yard on summer afternoons.
Brandt seems destined to follow his father and grandfather’s path.
Before he could walk, Brandt had a pedal fire truck and plastic helmet. As a toddler, he slept in a bed shaped like a fire truck. When he went to kindergarten and was assigned to make an alphabet, “A” wasn’t for alligator or apple.
"A" was for apparatus or ax.
“When we go to the station, he’ll tell me ‘I’m gonna be on that truck someday,'” Trisha says.
It’s an obsession that Dallas loves. He loves going out into the yard and seeing Brandt’s fake fire gear folded up just like his at Station 1: boots up, the rest of the gear folded over, ready to go at a moment's notice.
And if you ask Brandt about firefighting, he’ll only smile and nod that yes, one day he wants to be a firefighter just like his dad.
“It’s kinda cool, you know, having that family tradition,” Dallas says.
And Dallas wants to make sure things are safe for his boy to be a firefighter someday.
At Station 1, he teaches breathing apparatus use and safety techniques to new recruits. This fall, he’ll teach a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) class, explaining when to use your mask for oxygen and when not to.
Dallas even operates his own fire training business, traveling across the state and into western Iowa, training departments made up of volunteers.
“We’re more susceptible to all sorts of cancers and lung issues and all that kinda crap,” Dallas said. “But, ya know, every day people are making progress and making things safer and I’d hope by that time he’s of age to join a department 10 years from now, by then we should have much better practices in place.”
“I’m just doing what I can,” he said.
* * *
The art of a man cave is perfected inside Station 1.
AC/DC blares from a silver AM/FM radio as seven firefighters with muscles the size of bowling balls flick down cards at a table, crack jokes and swipe sweat off their brows.
Dallas leans against a concrete column next to one of the fire engines, dressed helmet to boot in his mustard yellow firefighting gear.
“Sometimes it’s kinda like a fraternity in here, honestly,” Dallas says.
It’s cleaning and inventory day, and Dallas is next to check his self-contained breathing apparatus and O2 -- or oxygen -- equipment.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago, you wouldn’t see anything this intense,” says Battalion Chief Murrell, pointing at the three firefighters testing their breathing apparatus, and the washing machines packed with firefighting gear to wash off any toxins.
“A lot has changed. Especially from back in my day.”
The biggest change is regular use of self-contained breathing apparatus.
When Murrell and Station 2 firefighter Bruce Elsberry were young firefighters, it was the norm to take off self-contained breathing apparatus after the fire was out and during what they call overhaul, breaking down walls, ceilings and voids to check for sources that could rekindle the fire.
“Wouldn’t think twice about it,” Elsberry said.
He and Murrell would follow the older firefighters, the tough guys, who took off their masks during overhaul.
“Get that mask off, ya big weenie,” Murrell was told once.
But firefighters who were notorious for shedding masks during overhaul began getting cancer.
“You’ve got your hydrogen-cyanide in there, there are still gases coming off and that’s what’s going to harm you and kill you later in life,” Dallas said. “I tell the young guys, ‘You either put this O2 on your back now, or you’ll be rolling it behind when you get old.”
A recent study by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that a lack of protection or use of a self-contained breathing apparatus during overhaul directly leads to cancer.
Now, Elsberry says, it’s the exact opposite. Now, it’s all about wearing the self-contained breathing apparatus at all times, and avoiding inhaling anything harmful.
“It’s the tough guys that are wearing the 40-pound oxygen machine now,” Dallas said. “You take your mask off -- that means you can’t take the 40 pounds of oxygen on your back. Then you’re the wuss.”
Dallas wants to eliminate the old mindset and train new recruits with a safer perspective. What happened to Jack Bruns hurt everyone, Dallas says. He had just joined the department when Bruns died, and he doesn’t want to attend another funeral from a cancer death in the firefighting family.
And the Bruns family doesn’t want anyone else to go through what they had to.
“We’re a very introspective industry,” Gary Bruns said. “We’re always sharpshooting each other. How can we do things better? Because when you start losing family or when you start losing friends on the job, how do we fix that?”
The Bruns brothers and Murrell have done the research, and there’s no way to figure out how many Lincoln firefighters have died from cancer in the past 20 or so years. And no records exist of firefighters getting cancer post-retirement, and Gary says the firefighters who have cancer now often want to keep it a secret.
“There’s just no way of knowing the extent of the damage,” his brother Alan says.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem worth addressing, and fixing, they all say.
“Who knows?” Dallas asks, sitting on the deck of his house off the highway. “Me, myself, right now could be a candidate for cancer.”
There are some mornings when Dallas doesn’t want to go back, because he knows and has seen the danger. But he has people in trouble who need his help, and he wants to train more young firefighters to make sure they’re doing things the right way.
And Dallas can’t stop, because Brandt, his “little fire guy” as he calls him, needs someone to look up to.
When Dallas responds to a call as a volunteer in Valparaiso, Brandt will hear the sirens, drop his Legos and tear across the kitchen to the deck.
He waits, sometimes with his 3-year-old sister Brooklyn, sometimes standing on a chair for a better look, growing in anticipation as the sirens grow louder and louder.
When the ambulance wails by, Dallas will stick his hand out the window and wave. Brandt will wave back as his father -- his hero -- responds to another call.