Fire chief says mill blaze led to ongoing breathing problems

GREAT FALLS -- Fighting fires in Great Falls is John Jones' life.

Or at least it was until February, when the 31-year-old fire chief went on sick leave because of breathing problems he says are caused by last year's fire at the J.P. Stevens Mill No. 3.

"I'm still struggling a year later," Jones said. "It's killing me. I hate not being able to do what I love."

Jones was the first firefighter at the scene of the massive mill fire on June 6, 2006, and worked 36 hours before stopping to sleep.

In the months after the fire, he was bothered by what he thought were sinus problems. They wouldn't go away. Breathing became difficult, and simple tasks left him winded.

His doctor eventually suggested he go to a lung specialist, where Jones learned he has what he describes as "chemical-induced asthma."

The smoke from the mill fire that covered Great Falls for about a week contained hydrochloric acid, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Shifting winds blew the smoke in every direction and caused evacuations of more than half the town.

Some Great Falls residents have complained of breathing problems similar to Jones'.

In the weeks following the fire, the blaze sparked two lawsuits: one against the mill's owners, John and Margaret Tibbs, and the owner of a plastics company housed inside the mill; and a second against the county and the plastics company.

A judge dismissed the suit against the Tibbses in November, saying lawyers failed to show how or why the couple was responsible for the fire.

In the suit against the county, Great Falls residents claim Chester County officials were negligent to allow CBCL, a plastics grinding and recycling business, to reopen after it was shut down for alleged safety code violations in 2004. The county denies the suit's allegations.

The two lawsuits against the plastics company owner, Ping Lee, represent about 150 residents. They claim his business contained "hazardous material" that burned and caused illness and the evacuation. Lee denied negligence and responsibility and claims firefighting tactics caused massive evacuations.

It's unknown if any other firefighters suffered injuries similar to Jones'.

Eddie Murphy, the county's emergency management director, said he can't discuss any injuries to other firefighters because of the lawsuit against the county.

"We're not in too bad of shape," he said.

Jones isn't part of any lawsuit.

These days, he's handling his department's administrative duties and trying to cope with the fact that he can't mow his grass or walk in a park. Even a routine trip to the grocery store exhausts him.

"That's how bad I got it," he said.

Despite the negative effects on his health, Jones said the mill fire taught him lessons about teamwork.

He sent out more than 90 thank-you notes to different agencies and departments that assisted during the fire -- everyone from economic development to animal control.

"I worked with a bunch of people I've never met before in my life," he said. "And it was a pleasure working with everybody. Wish it had been under different circumstances."

Like the help he had from other agencies last year, Jones now receives support from his firefighters and the town.

"I got everybody behind me 100 percent," he said.

Jones hopes doctors will be able to treat his problems so he can return to the fire department in the fall.

For a guy who started working with rescue squads before he could drive and began firefighting in the late 1990s, Jones has been in the business of saving people for more than half his life.

He's not ready to stop.