While a group of 21 specialists, scoured the wreckage of the October 19 fire that ravaged the Park Theatre Mall in Estes Park, Colorado, a canine unit from the state's investigative bureau searches, so far in vain, for the cause of the fire that devastated this historic landmark.
Twelve businesses were destroyed by the fire, including: 14er`s Cafe, the Hiking Hut, Home for the Holidays, Intrigue Gift Shop, the Last Outpost, Madam Vera, Memories Old Time Portraits, Mountain Blown Glass, the Music Box Collection, Spectrum Gallery, 110 E. Elkhorn, and the Wynbrier Wildlife Gallery.
Two other businesses not yet opened, Embroidery and Signs and Pillow Pets, will presumably have to find a new location.
The Park Theatre Mall was built in the early 1900s and served, first, as a carriage house and livery stable, then as a pottery factory. In the 1970s - when sprinkler systems weren't mandated under fire code regulations, and asbestos-containing construction materials were considered acceptable - it was remodeled to become the current mall. At that time, it housed five separate retail locations.
A Salud physician, Dr. George Crislip, said he warned officials during the fire about the danger of asbestos, both to firefighters and first responders, and to residents of Estes Park who were in the vicinity of the fire.
Asbestos was mined and used in a number of building products during most of the last century, leaving a legacy that still kills an estimated 20,000 individuals a year. The fibers, too small to be seen without an electron microscope, can be inhaled or ingested (merely by swallowing saliva) and cause irritations in the respiratory and digestive tracts.
The most dangerous form of asbestos disease is mesothelioma, a cancer of the mesothelial lining around the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), the heart (pericardial mesothelioma) and the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma).
Pleural mesothelioma is by far the most common form, found in 75 percent of cases. It lies dormant, sometimes as long as 50 years, producing few definitive symptoms but progressively impacting vital tissue. By the time it is diagnosed, most physicians offer patients a prognosis of between one year and 18 months to live.
As Crislip noted, it's hard to estimate how much asbestos was left behind, or actually created, during remodeling, but much of it was likely exposed by the fire and subsequent crumbling walls, collapsed roof and fire debris blown by the wind.
Calling asbestos a "hidden disaster waiting to happen", Crislip added that human exposure during and after the fire may lead to an Estes Park legacy of asbestos illnesses a few decades down the road, and urged Estes Park citizens to rethink their initiative to abolish the Estes Park Urban Renewal Authority, or EPURA - which initiative will appear on a January 2010 mail-in ballot.
The agency, Crislip noted, would be highly instrumental in asbestos remediation, if the substance was discovered in fire-related debris. EPURA Commissioner Art Blume reiterated the warning, adding that smoke plumes may have carried asbestos debris over the entire town.
Meanwhile, the fire department and canine crews continue to search for a cause of the fire, which may or not be arson-related.