Death from cancer was in the line of duty

Posted: Sunday, October 17, 2010

Firefighter Andy Mullen died of renal cancer Monday night -- a death in the line of duty, as classified by the Anchorage Fire Department.

Mullen, 45, an Eagle River resident known for his devotion to his three daughters and his charitable work, didn't lose his life in a burning building.

Instead, municipal officials say, Mullen proved his cancer was directly linked to years of exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, particularly while responding to car fires.

His pioneering worker's compensation claim -- approved just two weeks ago -- became the first awarded under 2006 legislation that singled out public-safety personnel.

The legislation added a clause granting "presumptive" benefits to firefighters, peace officers and emergency responders who could link cancer and other diseases to on-the-job exposures.

Mullen's death marks the department's first in the line of duty since firefighter Chuck Whitethorn died in 1976, fire officials said.

Anchorage Fire Chief Mark Hall said Mullen's cancer reflects a reality of modern firefighting -- the amount of toxic materials such as plastics, resins and polymers that are part of everyday objects like furniture and send off noxious clouds of smoke when burning.

"We call this a line-of-duty death," Hall said. "He is dead because of the job he chose to do."

The chief said he watched as his upbeat and physically strong friend fought the disease.

Earlier this year, Hall said, Mullen vision's started getting blurry. Doctors in April diagnosed him with renal cancer that spread quickly to his brain. That's when Mullen quit his job as an engineer for Station 4 on Tudor Road and started treatment.

"Initially, he was strong," Hall said. "You'd never know he had cancer. It came fast. It's an insidious disease." At a press conference Tuesday announcing Mullen's death, Hall was somber, mourning the loss of a friend.

"The cancer got the best of him ... and last night amongst fellow firefighters, brothers and sisters, his wife, his family, he died," Hall said. "He was a good man and he was a good firefighter."

'Great guy all around'

Mullen leaves behind a wife and three daughters. Hired in 1997, he worked until April, promoted in 2002 to apparatus engineer with the dive rescue team out of Station 4 on Tudor Road.

He was also an active executive board member of the Anchorage Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 1264, attending meetings through last month.

"He ran all of our charity fundraisers for the last eight years," said Rod Harris, president of the local. "We've never had anybody who's stepped up to the plate and taken it to the level he has."

Firefighter Joel Wagner knew Mullen for a decade. The men met when Wagner was a probationary fireman at Station 1 in Anchorage. They became fast friends, thanks in part to their shared love of the outdoors.

Wagner, who now works at Station 11 in Eagle River, said his friend was one of the most spirited people he's ever known.

"He was the best," Wagner said on Tuesday. "A great guy all around. Great fireman, great friend, great dad."

Wagner, who has a daughter, said he and Mullen often spent time at Mullen's cabin in the Mat-Su, taking their daughters hiking in the woods or swimming in the lake. Near the end, Mullen ramped up the amount of time he spent with his three girls even as cancer ravaged his once-powerful body.

"He always did that a lot anyway, but he really made sure this summer that he spent as much time as he could with his kids," Wagner said.

Wagner last saw Mullen on Sunday, when he and some fellow firefighters stopped by to drop off a video of Mullen's twin daughters playing basketball. Wagner knew that Mullen would have wanted nothing more than to be able to attend the game himself.

"I think he lived life to the fullest," Wagner said. "If there was somewhere he wanted to go, he did it."

Mullen would pop into Chugiak High School to watch his oldest daughter cheer, even for just five minutes, said state Rep. Bill Stoltze, who knew the firefighter for more than 20 years. They met through family -- Stoltze's niece and Mullen's daughter, now 19, went to Chugiak together.

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