Retired Goodyear Fire Engineer Austin Peck was remembered September 7 by his colleagues not at a somber funeral, but with a “great party at the Dubliner,” per his wishes.
Peck lost his battle with a rare occupational cancer August 31.
“The Dubliner was a special place to our pre-child days,” said Erin Peck, Austin’s wife. “We sat in a special booth to listen to live bands on many dates. He was an Irishman and he needed/wanted to give an Irish goodbye.”
Stephen Gilman, president of the United Goodyear Fire Fighters Association, attended the celebration.
“It was an amazing celebration of life,” Gilman said.
Media and the public weren’t permitted in the Dubliner. A GoFundMe — gofundme.com/help-austin-family — was set up in September 2018 to help with alternative treatment costs, but it is now aiding Peck’s wife and daughters, Erin, Marley and Harper. So far, it has raised $25,000. The United Goodyear Firefighters Local 4005 Charities are accepting donations for their members’ hardship fund. For more information, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peck, 35, joined the Goodyear Fire Department in January 2008 and suffered from what he described in June 2018 as sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, abbreviated SNUC, a rare, aggressive disease in the lining of the sinuses or nose. Peck said he was one of only 400 people with the cancer. Although there isn’t a lot of research on the cancer, doctors told Peck his disease was from the carcinogens he was exposed to while fighting fires.
The Goodyear Fire Department reported the cause of death as complications associated with adenocarcinoma, cancer that forms in the glands and may spread to other areas of the body. Sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma is a type of adenocarcinoma.
Peck was diagnosed in November 2015 after his nose felt swollen, as if it was broken, and he headed to the doctor. He was given an 18% chance to live six months.
“At the time, I was boxing. I thought it was just a broken nose,” he recalled at the time. “I just let it go, but it started to get bigger. I thought I had to check that out. Then I started to get really bad headaches. I went to an ear, nose and throat doctor in Phoenix. He looked up there with a camera and instantly said there was a tumor in my nose. It was devastating.”
Chemotherapy kept the cancer at bay, but his PET scans showed a relentless, continual return no matter the treatment.
Peck’s coworker, Gilbert Aguirre, who was profiled in the May 30, 2018, issue of the West Valley View, was diagnosed with cancer within six months of Peck.
Erin Peck said her husband had good days and bad days, but his persistence in beating the disease remained.
“The morning he died, as people were telling him it was OK to let go, he was still fighting and still completely convinced he was going to be going home from the hospital soon.”
According to the First Responder Center for Excellence, some diseases are considered “presumptive.” Generally, in the case of work-related illness or injury, the burden is placed on the workers to prove their ailments are a result of occupational exposures. With the advent of presumptive legislation, that burden shifts; the employer must prove the firefighter’s working conditions were not a significant contributing factor to the development of cancer. With presumptive legislation, the line-of-duty claim, and subsequent benefits, it can be automatically approved if the specific criteria are met under the state’s regulations.
According to ARS 23-901, Arizona considers “any disease, infirmity or impairment of a firefighter’s or peace officer’s health that is caused by brain, bladder, rectal or colon cancer, lymphoma, leukemia or adenocarcinoma or mesothelioma of the respiratory tract and that results in disability or death” to be an occupational disease.
Also, “any disease, infirmity or impairment of a firefighter’s health that is caused by buccal cavity and pharynx, esophagus, large intestine, lung, kidney, prostate, skin, stomach or testicular cancer or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma or malignant melanoma and that results in disability or death is presumed to be an occupational disease.”
Peck applied for worker’s compensation through CopperPoint Mutual Insurance Company and was denied because his cancer was not on the presumptive list. At the time of the interview, he was on the fourth appeal.
Gilman said CopperPoint Mutual Insurance Company didn’t cover his claim.
“He was medically retired through city of Goodyear, which makes it more frustrating now that we know his doctor has never approved a cancer claim with a firefighter,” Gilman said.
He’s referring to Phoenix oncologist Dr. Jason Salganick, who has performed many of the independent medical exams for firefighter cancer cases. In one of the appeals for a Local 493 member, Salganick stated that he was denying the claim because the firefighter could not cite exactly which fire he contracted cancer on, according to Gilman. Salganick was not available for comment.
During one appeal, Peck brought paperwork for the industrial commission.
“I provided a three-ring binder with the thousands of calls I’ve been on and what I’ve been exposed to,” he said. “The judge asked me which call gave me cancer.
“We know the odds (of getting cancer). We feel like we should be protected by the insurance we’re paying for. We still do the job we’re asked to, then we’re denied when it comes for us when we’re asking for something back? It’s very frustrating.”
“We know our job’s dangerous, but we continue to do our job,” Gilman said. “We don’t question whether or not we have to run into a burning building. We just do it. All we’re asking the people leading us — whether that’s the politicians or anyone else — is to do their jobs and get us the benefits we’re supposed to have.”
Remembering a hero
Peck’s 6-mile procession route began at the family’s North Phoenix home, passing under the Loop 101 and Cave Creek Road intersection, traveling south on Cave Creek Road to Greenway Parkway, east on Greenway Parkway to 32nd Street, then south on 32nd Street to Thunderbird Road and east on Thunderbird Road to the Dubliner.
Gov. Doug Ducey ordered all flags at state buildings to be lowered to half-staff from sunrise to sunset on September 3 to honor Peck. Flags were also lowered on the day of internment.
“Our hearts go out to the family of Goodyear firefighter Austin Peck,” Ducey said. “(Fire Engineer) Peck served his community honorably and Arizona will remember his selfless service. In honor of (Fire Engineer) Peck, I’ve ordered flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff.”
Erin Peck said one day she hopes to continue to battle for firefighters’ rights.
“Eventually, I will be planning to do something impactful and do something to relieve the stress of other families going through this,” she said. “But the time needs to be right once my family is healed from Austin’s passing.”