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Memories of the El Toro Marine Air Base: a Modern Day Ghost TownTim King Salem-News.com
This feature is part of a series report on contamination at the El Toro Marine base; it includes a special slideshow presentation.
(IRVINE, Calif.) - The sound of afterburners from fighter and attack jets soaring into the California sky over the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station have been silent for almost a decade. They have been replaced by an eerie silence that envelopes the looming buildings and hangars.
Shutters crackle in the wind, doors blow open and closed, and the hangars sound like they are still populated with people, when they are completely empty. The feeling the old base puts off underscores the ghost town idea without even trying.
People to this day, question whether closing this flagship Marine air base was a good idea. It seems an odd contradiction in an age of increasing national security, but the health hazards that continue to emerge from TCE and other chemicals seeping under the base like Perchlorate, likely mean that the closure had to happen anyway, at least until a sincere cleanup effort was completed. Most who have studied the situation say the TCE here can not be completely removed from the earth and it will stick around for the next thousand years or so.
Many Marines and their family members who lived and served at El Toro have experienced serious health issues including cancer, mutations and intestinal disorders. These are all symptoms of TCE contamination. In some cases, likely including my own immediate family, the contamination can be passed down to the next generation. This also happened with Agent Orange contamination during the Vietnam War.
My first born son suffered a collapsed bowel at the age of four months. My wife's first born son was born with an epiglottis the size of a 40-year old man's. Both children were in ICU wards for these problems by the age of four months.
I will likely never know if TCE contamination caused these problems, but it seems very possible. I know that plenty of showers were taken during each pregnancy at El Toro base housing, and vapors in a shower are one way TCE can harm people, experts say, after it permeates a home's foundation. The shower releases the TCE through the steam.
As a Marine at El Toro, I also suffered frequent lower stomach aches. These were never resolved and flared up periodically. After I was discharged from the Marines, the stomach aches resided noticeably.
In my personal experience here, there are two stories in my mind that stand out very clearly about El Toro. One happened on my very first day there, and one toward the end of my time at El Toro. Each was bizarre and unpredictable. I offer them as a perspective and in an effort to describe the fast paced lifestyle of this huge Marine Corps facility.
A New Marine's First Day at El Toro
After making it through 13 weeks of basic training, "boot camp" at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, I was given orders to report to El Toro where I would become a tactical aircraft refueler. This role involved using portable jet refueling systems with above ground pumps that can be set up quickly in a combat zone to keep jets fueled and flying.
The plane, a 2-seat Marine jet fighter, flew off for a few minutes so the Marine pilots could jettison (get rid of) their "drop tanks" which carry extra fuel. Then they returned and were circling above the base.
No other aircraft were active at this point at El Toro. Marine Crash Crew vehicles all came out moving fast and they sprayed the runway down with foam. We were not sure what was going to happen next, or if they were actually going to try to land the plane this way.
When the Marine aviators brought the Phantom back they were in a tough situation to say the least. The choice had obviously been made that they were going to attempt to land the aircraft as they stayed in the immediate area for several minutes, then began an approach.
On one landing gear wheel and one strut, they landed the F-4 and used what appeared to be a great deal of finesse in keeping it straight. When it touched down the plane made sparks so huge that it looked like a 4th of July celebration. That lasted for several seconds and then the plane left the paved runway and went into the dirt.
It was a calm day in Orange County and it took what seemed like ten minutes for the dust to clear. The plane was damaged, but those guys brought it down and walked away from it. That was within the first two hours of my first day in the Fleet Marine Service. (post basic training)
A Marine's Last Days at El Toro
My last weeks of duty at El Toro were spent as a "Duty NCO" which means I was the Marine on guard duty for a lack of better terms, at the 'H'-shaped apartment style barracks where the guys from my squadron and I lived.
One Saturday night a pair of local Orange County girls came to the "duty hut" where I was located and asked if I would see if a particular Marine was in his room. I checked the Marine's three-man room and he was not there.
They came back a short time later and I checked for the Marine again, to no avail. An hour or two passed and one of the girls came into the duty hut again and she was very upset. She explained that they had walked over the the enlisted club and were having a good time, and they thought they would walk back over the the barracks I was in charge of and see if the Marine they were looking for had returned.
But then along the way, a white Toyota pulled up driven by an off-duty Marine, who offered the two girls a ride. The girl talking to me said she declined, but to her surprise, her friend got in the car and it drove off. When she found the girl a short time later, she said she had been sexually assaulted.
The girl talking to me said her friend, the victim, was sitting in their car. I went out and talked to her and she came back to the barracks area so I could find out what happened.
It seemed like it took no time at all; suddenly the girl who said she had been assaulted, pointed out the window and said "there he is" as a white Toyota drove near the barracks very slowly. I ran out of the barracks and used a parked military truck to keep the driver of the Toyota from seeing me. As he passed the front of the Marine Corps 2 1/2 ton truck, I leaned into his car and shut the motor off and removed the key. It happened fast and the slightly drunk Marine didn't have time to react. I pulled him out of his car and pinned his arm behind his back and walked him up to my barracks; 661.
I put the guy in a phone booth and had the girl come out and confirm that it was the man who assaulted her, and she said he was the same man.
That is when I took out his ID and realized he was a Staff Sergeant. The highest rank I reached in the Marines was Lance Corporal and most of my time was as a private and Pfc. A Staff Sergeant is an advanced rank that takes several years to achieve. It made his alleged actions seem all the worse as he was a figure of authority. I called the MP's and they came out and took it from there. I think in truth that they just let the guy go, and that charges were never pressed, but that was the way it went down one Saturday night in December 1983 at El Toro MCAS.
The El Toro Marine Corps Air Station was the scene of many near misses and it was also the scene of tragedies. But all the while it was home and good duty for thousands upon thousands of Marines over the years and they served here with a high degree of excellence.
To see this proud place as a ghost town today is sad, and knowing that the ground beneath your feet is seething with toxic chemicals that many local government officials dismiss or claim to know very little about, as million dollar homes are built on top of it, makes the saga downright tragic.
This article is part of a continuing series on Trichloroethylene contamination at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Southern California. Here is the slideshow of some of Tim's images of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (July 2:
Here are the other installments in this series on El Toro:
Deadly Toxic Chemicals From Marine Base Threaten Irvine Neighborhoods (VIDEO REPORT)
Irvine, California Threatened by Contaminated Water From El Toro Marine Base (VIDEO REPORT)
El Toro Water Contamination Reports Will Continue
Sick Marines and Contaminated Water: Questions Surround El Toro Marine Air Base (VIDEO REPORT)
These are all related Salem-News.com reports on TCE:
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. Today, in addition to his role as a war correspondent in Afghanistan where he spent the winter of 2006/07, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website, affiliated with Google News and several other major search engines and news aggregators. Tim's coverage from Iraq that was set to begin in April has been delayed and may not take place until August, 2008. You can send Tim an email at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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