A neighborhood tells the dreadful sequel to steel's glory years


Tom Minkin stands in the heart of Dundalk and sweeps his arm toward the tidy rowhouses that stretch in perfect lines in all four directions.

"Look at this neighborhood," the union lawyer says. "A couple of white-haired grandmothers over there. These kids riding their bikes toward us. Real America, right? Right out of the fifties, isn't it?"

He pauses. "We're standing," he says, "in the middle of a graveyard."

He is outside the home of Robert B. Perry, a pallid Bethlehem Steel retiree. Like Mr. Perry, virtually all of Mr. Minkin's clients are sick, some desperately so. Two years ago, doctors found a mass in Mr. Perry's lungs, requiring months of chemotherapy and radiation. In September, new tumors appeared at the top of his spinal chord.

Mr. Perry's doctors say his lung cancer was caused by inhaling asbestos fibers at Bethlehem Steel, where he worked in the sheet metal shop.

When he was told about the cancer, his memory retrieved images 30 or 40 years in his past. There he was again, fastening sheet metal in the hull of a ship or sweating before the roaring blast furnace. And there, all around him once more, was the white, asbestos dust.

"We used to say it was like being in a snowstorm," he says now, a wan smile on his deeply creased, rubbery face.

It is always the same when the chest X-rays come back positive. Asbestos, the men say. Of course. They remember squinting through the dust or coughing it out of their throats or brushing it off their ham sandwiches. Back then, asbestos was around wherever heat was in use. At Beth Steel, heat was everywhere.

For a year, doctors were stumped by the unrelenting pain Mr. Perry's neighbor, Robert R. Busch, felt in his shoulder. Finally, in March of 1990, they put a name on it. He had mesothelioma, a rare cancer that is caused only by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. When Mr. Busch learned what lay behind his illness, "it was like turning on a light for him," his daughter, Lynn Moreland, recalls. "He understood." Three weeks later, he was dead.

In Stanbrook, just one song on the car radio from Sparrows Point, the general story line has become a familiar one. At least 80 people in the 20-block area have asbestos-related diseases, Mr. Minkin says. Nine are dead already.

"I can't walk out my door, front or back," says Mr. Busch's widow, Lydia, "without running into someone who has been affected."

If finally knowing the cause of his illness made sense to Robert Busch, in another way, it didn't add up at all. The steel workers of his generation had played by the rules all their lives. They had gone to war, then they had gone to work. They had helped transform their company into the symbol of American potency, an accomplishment that was, in truth, a secondary consideration for most.

"It was the money that brought me there," says Theodore Craft, a crane operator for 30 years. "It was as good as any around."

It was a square deal, or so it seemed. Only at advanced ages, when their company was in humbled retreat, did thousands of steelworkers learn what the asbestos manufacturers had always kept hidden: that every day spent at Sparrows Point was time potentially shaved from their lives.

The truth they were finally forced to confront seared like molten ore. The legacy of Beth Steel's glory years was the disease that is now crippling and killing its workers.

"The plant's dying out," says Frances Lozoskie, whose father, John W. Sweeney, succumbed to asbestos-related lung cancer in 1985, "and the people are going with it."

'Everyone knew everyone'

If Bethlehem Steel is a black-and-white snapshot, stark, gloom and unforgiving, nearby Stanbrook is a page from a child's coloring book, neat and ordered and unremittingly cheerful.

The bundles of rowhouses sprang up from a cow pasture in the mid-'50s, part of a Dundalk building boom straining to keep pace with Bethlehem Steel's surging, post-war expansion. The company couldn't hire fast enough to satisfy consumer demand. By the end of the decade, employment at Sparrows Point would peak at 32,000 workers. Beth Steel would be the largest steel producer in the world.

Many of Stanbrook's pioneers were veterans. They had returned from World War II or Korea, re-established themselves at the mill, fallen in love and married. Now, with young families, rising wages and low-interest VA loans, they were ready for a step up.

Some moved from rented homes in Bethlehem Steel's company town on the edge of the steel works. Others abandoned older sections of Dundalk for the amenities a $9,000 Stanbrook home could offer -- hardwood floors, oil furnaces and modern kitchens.

Soon after, a brand-new elementary school was built at the neighborhood's northern end, a park opened in the east and the Peninsula Expressway was completed in the south. With the new highway, Beth Steel workers could fall out of their beds and be at the open hearth or blast furnace 10 minutes later.

At the start, Stanbrook homes were nearly identical -- squat, two-story brick houses, each sitting on a dollop of grass. But these were handy men, so it wasn't long before they added personal touches. They built screened porches in front and garages and patios in back. On their lawns they laid ornate, circular flower gardens, clay planters in the guise of swans and ducks and homemade fountains, some overlooked by a religious figure, Jesus, perhaps, or Mary.

Because most homes were owned by Beth Steel workers, neighborhood bonds were strong. Everyone understood the plant's special language, what it meant, for instance, to "run four heats" in a day or to be part of a "tear-out" crew. And everyone knew a man's function at the plant by the color of the hard hat sitting in the rear window of his car: white for manager, red for iron worker, yellow for safety, gray for hourly worker.

The whole community fretted about coming labor talks. Neighbors played golf and swam together at the company's country club. They went off to the Steelworkers Hall on weekend nights for the fights or sometimes a dance.

"There was a constant feeling of being part of a large, concerned family," Mrs. Busch recalls. "Everyone knew everyone else. It felt like we were growing up together."

Today, a new language binds Stanbrook, and it has nothing to do with steelmaking. It is the language of disease: asbestosis, fibrosis, pulmonary function tests.

"At the grocery store," says John Bedell, a thin, craggy-faced man, who followed his grandfather, father and two uncles to Sparrows Point, "it's not 'How are you?' It's 'Did you hear about Joe dying or Bill getting sick?' "

Hardly a family seems untouched. Dorothy Neukam's husband, Charles, has asbestosis. So does her brother. And his wife. "She got it just from handling his clothes," Mrs. Neukam says.

Mr. Bedell, a quality assurance inspector for 36 years, watched his father and his uncle die prematurely of lung cancer. He himself has asbestosis as did his younger brother, Robert, also a steel worker. Then, a year ago, doctors diagnosed Robert with an inoperable brain tumor. Soon after, he began losing sensation in his body.

"He would reach down and and touch his toes one day, his ankles the next, his knees the next," Mr. Bedell, 58, says. "He was dying from the feet on up." Robert died at 55, three days before Christmas last year.

"It tore me up to see him that way," says Mr. Bedell, tears dripping down his lined face. "Now I wonder, 'Is that what I have to look forward to?' "

The most subtle evidence of asbestos disease in Stanbrook is the condition of the homes. It is still a remarkably well-tended neighborhood, but here and there are signs of neglect: a lawn that has gone unedged too long, a front door that should have been varnished by now.

Behind many of those doors there now lives a man in his 50s, 60s or 70s who cannot draw enough breath into his lungs. Asbestos is associated with several forms of cancer, but most often, it causes asbestosis, a disease that constricts the ability of the lungs to pump oxygen into the blood stream. It robs its victims of breath.

"I used to paint my house every two to three years," says 62-year-old Charles Neukam, a bald, muscular man. "It got to be too much for me. I used to change a tire in five minutes. Now it would take me 25. If I were to try to move this chair from here to there, I'd be huffing and puffing.

"I still have the strength," he says. "I don't have the breath."

So it is with one man after another. Mr. Neukam once could polka through the night. Now, he wouldn't consider stepping onto the dance floor. Mr. Craft brags, "I used to be a shark in the water." Last summer, he couldn't make it across a puny motel pool. Tony Russo, with the shape of a spark plug, once bowled in three leagues. Now he sits in frustration on Friday nights as his wife, Adelene, heads for the bowling lanes.

"I used to do plumbing work, plastering, carpentry," Mr. Russo snaps. "I used to do it all. I can't do nothing now. Nothing."

After a 90-minute interview, his face is red and puffy. With great effort, he pushes himself out of his armchair to see his guests out.

Ollie Tanner, 65, is in much worse shape. A South Carolinian by birth, Mr. Tanner was a Bethlehem Steel welder for 32 years. He remembers treating asbestos in the most casual manner. If he was repairing a pipe, he would simply scrape the asbestos away or burn through it. Either way, he'd get a snortful and think nothing of it. "You couldn't get away from it and do your job," he says.

His breathing problems started in the late 1970s. "The normal home has 13 steps," he says. "When I'd get to the top, I'd have to sit down and rest for five minutes."

Today, he cannot utter three sentences without tiring. He presses an open palm against his chest and still it violently heaves in and out. Eight times a day, he sucks hungrily on an inhalator to clear his air sacs for the slightest relief.

"I can't even sleep in that bed very long," he says, jerking his hand toward his bedroom. "I have to get up or stand up. I have to come out here and sit in this chair because I can't lie down.

"You see these guys carrying their oxygen with them or wheeling it around. I know it's coming." He is interrupted by a coughing jag and spits up phlegm. "I am about the angriest son of a bitch you ever saw."

Down at the Point, Charlie Neukam saw men electrocuted, gassed and crushed. He bowled with a man who later died after inhaling poisonous fumes. Another guy he knew fell asleep in the cab of his forklift and drove it off a platform. The man died on the floor four flights below.

Bad things happened in a steel mill and Mr. Neukam, with three kids at home, wasn't about to let them happen to him. "When you see somebody die, you don't forget it," he says. "I don't anyway." When his chance came, he didn't hesitate. After 10 years of driving a truck, he opted for a desk job.

Others may not have followed him to the safety of an office, but hardly a soul didn't share his fatalism. Layoffs were a fact of life. Strikes sometimes could not be avoided. And accidents, they'd say, come for you at the Point.

One came for Ollie Tanner. "I was on a stage working in a blast furnace in '56," he recalls. "The staging moved, my foot slipped on some rubble, and I fell 110 feet. I got busted up pretty bad."

He smashed his left shoulder and shattered his right leg. Two years later, when the leg still hadn't mended, surgeons sliced an inch and three quarters out of his thighbone. That is precisely the thickness of the sole of the right shoe he wears today.

He never held it against Bethlehem Steel. "They were a great company to work for," he says. "I never wanted for anything."

Everyone knew Beth Steel was a dangerous place, but the company was conscientious about safety. Employees were required to sit through safety lectures every week. Their supervisors were expected to caution each worker every day. No one was permitted to work without appropriate safety equipment, be it hard hat, goggles or steel-tipped shoes.

"If Beth Steel had known," says Mr. Perry, "they would have damned well made sure we wore respirators."

Bethlehem Steel always maintained that it did not know.

The asbestos manufacturers did.

For four months earlier this year, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury listened to dramatic evidence of a cover-up in the asbestos industry that had lasted for perhaps half a century.

The case pitted 8,600 Maryland plaintiffs against 14 asbestos manufacturers. Half the plaintiffs were present or former Beth Steel employees, including both line workers and managers. Most of the rest were building tradesmen exposed to asbestos at Sparrows Point.

The manufacturers initially denied that they were aware of the risks of asbestos, probably the greatest insulator ever developed. The workers' attorneys countered with documentation showing that the dangers of asbestos were known as far back as the turn of the century.

Beginning then, researchers noticed that the men who excavated asbestos, a mineral encased in rock, and processed it for sale were getting sick and dying at alarmingly high rates. One British study published in the 1920s found that virtually every person who worked around asbestos for 20 years or longer had serious lung disease.

It wasn't long before other studies surfaced showing that it wasn't only asbestos workers who were imperiled. The users of asbestos were also getting sick. Welders, carpenters, pipe insulators and other craftsmen were developing lung disease and various cancers.

Asbestos is only dangerous when it breaks down into dust or fibrous form. The fibers are light, fluffy and often microscopic. They can remain suspended for days and the slightest draft can whip them back into the air.

At Sparrows Point, asbestos appeared in every form imaginable. Asbestos strips, asbestos mortar, asbestos pipe covering, asbestos spray. For extra protection, some men pulled on asbestos trousers, gloves and jackets.

The plant was a particularly deadly setting. During much of its existence, Bethlehem Steel constantly demolished old structures and erected new ones. That meant that asbestos was always being applied and always being torn away, spreading its fibers into the air.

'What could they pay me?'

During the trial, the workers' lawyers -- including Mr. Minkin an others with the law firm of Peter G. Angelos -- introduced thousands of pages of documents to catalog the asbestos industry's long-held secret. For example, they submitted a 1956 report commissioned by one of the defendants, Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp., in which the director of an occupational health laboratory wrote, "You already know that asbestos is fairly well incriminated as a carcinogen and that asbestos causes lung damage."

An angry company official fired off his response: "It is certainly nothing that we could show customers or a union."

The manufacturers did just the opposite. That same year, Owens boasted in a customer brochure that its product's "light weight, pleasant handling and non-irritating and non-toxic nature contribute to worker well-being on the job."

By that time, according to evidence at the trial, some asbestos manufacturers had been paying out asbestos-related workers compensation claims for at least 25 years. Ironically, some of the asbestos officials involved in the cover-up would themselves die of asbestos-related disease.

The manufacturers privately accepted the mounting medical evidence as "undeniable." They worried about its impact on profits if anyone paid attention to the reports, and used their influence to suppress publication of the most damaging information. "The good news," Matthew Swetonic, an executive with the Asbestos Information Association told his members in 1973, was that "very few people have been paying attention."

Those documents, coupled with harrowing evidence about the agonizing illnesses and deaths of Beth Steel workers, appalled jurors.

"It's not the way America is supposed to work," says jury forewoman Karen Whittington.

She and the rest of the jury found seven manufacturers liable for damages for failing to issue warnings to their customers. The jury found the conduct of four of those seven egregious enough to order punitive damages. The jury was particularly angered by one company, GAF, which had hidden evidence that it had paid workers' compensation claims to its employees for asbestos illnesses. For every dollar GAF is ordered to pay in negligence damages, it must add $2.50 as punishment.

(Seven other defendants originally named in the lawsuit made settlement offers before the jury's verdict.)

With the negligence of the companies resolved, each plaintiff will now have a court hearing to determine individual awards.

Many workers were jubilant about the verdict; others were more muted. "What could they pay me now when I can't swim in the pool or take care of my damned lawn?" Mr. Craft says.

The money also will not take the edge off the bitterness. "I consider these companies murderers," says Frances Lozoskie.

When Robert Busch, an inventory and supply manager, retired in 1977, he and his wife, Lydia, threw themselves hungrily into a new life of learning. They traveled to Europe, Hawaii and Canada and began making their way through the Caribbean, spending two weeks on a new island every year. They immersed themselves in art and poetry courses at nearby Dundalk Community College. A school photographer once captured them holding hands as they strode across campus.

After he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1990, Mr. Busch refused to die in the hospital, so his family installed a hospital bed in the dining room. He worked on his crossword puzzles, watched some television, and tried to walk for exercise. On April 21, 1990, he sat in his living room armchair, beneath the watercolors and acrylic paintings he and his wife had done, and spoke to his daughter about the new Orioles season.

"Then he told me he was going to take a nap," Mrs. Moreland recalls. "He fell asleep in the chair. An hour later, I heard his breathing change. It changed again and then it stopped."

Lydia Busch was upstairs changing clothes. She heard her daughter calling her, telling her not to hurry. "I knew what had happened," Mrs. Busch says.

Delaying the inevitable, she finished changing before slowly making her way down the stairs to say goodbye to the man she had married 52 years before.

"They robbed us of 10 years of our life together," Mrs. Busch says.

'The way things go'

As cohesive as Stanbrook is, the sick have endured their crise in isolation, within the confines of their families.

"These people, they didn't talk about pain," says Mrs. Lozoskie, Mr. Sweeney's daughter. "They endured. We were raised by people who didn't show their emotions."

They did not become politically active. They did not start support groups. It would never occur to most of them to walk across the street to talk to an afflicted neighbor about their shared misery.

"It's not going to cure it, that's for sure," Mr. Perry says.

He graduated from Sparrows Point High School one day in 1941 and headed over to Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point shipyard the next. It felt logical to him. His family had worked in the mills of western Pennsylvania until his father migrated to Sparrows Point to be a roll-setter when Mr. Perry was a boy. He began work in the sheet metal shop. When he was done 40 years later, in 1981, he was general foreman of the entire division.

"Any place you seen down there, I've been under it, in it and over it," he says.

He loved his work. "I enjoyed Beth Steel," he says. "They treated me fine."

Eleven years after his retirement, he still marvels about the great steel works. "Did you see the hot strip mill?" he asks a visitor. "Did you see how big it was, how fast it moved?"

A fringe of dark stringy hair has only recently grown back after months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment to his chest and his brain. His body seems limp, his long arms heavy, as if they were pendulums attached to his shoulders.

He is sitting in an armchair in the club basement he built himself. On the wall behind him is a map showing Nazi prisoner of war camps during World War II. Mr. Perry was 22 years old, a gunner and flight engineer on a B-17 bomber, when the Germans knocked him out of the sky. They sent him to a POW camp in Poland. With the Russians closing in on one side and the British on the other, marched him for 80 days and 500 miles back and forth across Central Europe.

"I bailed out at 175 pounds," he recalls. "I got out of there at 130 pounds."

In recent years, Mr. Perry has become active in local and national POW organizations. He attends their meetings, travels to their banquets and participates in their ceremonies. "You don't mind talking to them about it," he says, "because they probably went through something worse than you."

He does not feel the same way about the illness that he shares with his neighbors. He does not talk to them about their common crisis. "I can't see there's any advantage to it," he says. "I just consider it sort of the way things go."

It is as though the lung disease and cancer merely confirm the fatalism the steelworkers felt all along. Accidents come for you at the Point. Nobody knew it at the time, but so did disease.

The curse will not be lifted for a few more years. Asbestos-related disease does not generally surface for 20 or 30 years. Bethlehem Steel stopped using asbestos in 1974. That means that new victims may continue to surface in Stanbrook until after the turn of the century.

Even while the disease hovers over Stanbrook, Bethlehem Steel's once firm grip on the neighborhood has long since loosened. Whatever the cause -- foreign competition, American trade policy or poor management -- Bethlehem Steel is a withered version of its former self. The coke ovens are closed. So is the rod mill and most of the furnaces. The shipyard doesn't make ships anymore.

The plant is down to 5,600 employees, and production is a fraction of what it was in the boom years.

Working at Beth Steel once seemed an imperative to the children of Stanbrook. Now it is barely an option. Hardly anyone in Stanbrook under 40 works at Sparrows Point. Many must leave Dundalk altogether. Not coincidentally, the income of the people in the neighborhood hasn't kept pace with rest of the Baltimore region.

Mr. Perry's son, Robert, 38, has been an operator in Bethlehem Steel's plate mill for 19 years. Because of cutbacks, he works only three out of four weeks. His chest X-rays have come back negative. He has been told, though, that the results are meaningless. Not enough time has passed to give him peace of mind.

He watches his father recede day by day. "It's like his light is gone," the younger Mr. Perry says.

He does not share his father's warm feelings about the plant. The work slowdown seems unfair, and he has no illusions that great years lie ahead. He cannot help it, but his father's illness causes him to worry about other hazards lurking at the plant.

"Back in his day, guys like my father were happy just to have a job," Mr. Perry says. "It's different today. Maybe we're more educated, or more aware or something, but you don't just accept things the same way anymore."

His 14-year-old son, Josh, who learned sheet metal work from his grandfather, is eager to head down to Sparrows Point when he graduates. His parents are dead set against it. It's time for the Perrys to forge a different life, probably away from Dundalk altogether.

"I've told Josh, 'I don't want you to go to the Point,' " says the boy's father. "The Point is dying. It's nothing but a ghost town."

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