The human story behind Canada's worst chemical fire
"Why you leaving Stelco?" the friend asked the rookie firefighter.
"'Cause it's hot and dirty and I don't like shifts."
Enter the world of Hamilton's firefighters. Theirs is a smouldering, combustible workplace, and in the effort to save lives they routinely put their own on the line. They know the ways of fire and fight to engage it, to be the one to break down the door and enter the furnace. They never give up. Not even when faced with the Big One.
In 1997, a city beleaguered by its reputation as a fire town experienced the worst toxic fire in Canada's history. The work of an arsonist, it broke out at Plastimet Inc., a warehouse containing more than 400 tons of baled PVC plastic. The burning polyvinyl chloride released a stew of chemicals -- hydrochloric acid, chlorine, benzene, dioxin, phosgene -- which rained down on the firefighters. The main fire burned for four days, and spot fires burned for another three weeks. Never before had Hamilton's firefighters combatted a fire like this. In the end, 264 of Hamilton's 400 firefighters played a role at the scene. Firefighters across Canada and around the world know of the Plastimet fire.
Focusing on the life and career of Captain Bob Shaw, Jon Wells puts a human face on his account of Canada's worst toxic fire. He interviewed many of the men who were at the scene, their families, and the officials involved in the investigation of the fire's cause and after effects. Published as a series in The Hamilton Spectator in 2004, Heat broke readership records and won the International Association of Firefighters Media Award. Jon Well's reportage was also the first to shed light on the mystery of the arsonist's identity. For publication in book form, the series has been expanded with chapters on the community's reaction and on the fire's impact on how cities and firefighters combat chemical fires. The book also includes an Afterword by Nathan Shaw, Bob Shaw's son.
About Jon Wells
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Published October 3, 2006
Biographies & Memoirs, History.