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

October 25, 1992|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

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.

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