James Leary had worked at the Kenneth Kesselring Site for 30 years, which was more than enough for him. When he turned 60 in January 1985, he decided to retire.
He would take a summer job at the Saratoga Racetrack, several blocks from his home in Saratoga Springs. Relax, spend some time with his wife, his family.
Last Nov. 9, surgeons removed half of James Leary's left lung. Cancer, Asbestos damage. He was lucky. He lived.
They hit me with a complete surprise, this asbestos," said Leary, a soft-spoken man of 64 with black and silver hair. "When they opened me up, they said it was definitely asbestos damage. My right lung is only half the size of what it should be. If they had to take any more of the left lung out, they say I never would have gotten off the respirator.
"You think of things later," he said thoughtfully in his living room, which he paces in the winter for exercise. "They had this asbestos stored up over us in the building. I was an instrument mechanic, and we'd go in in the morning and wipe the dust off the benches. We didn't realize there was asbestos.
"The diesel generators were in the same building so when they got running the dust would be coming down," Leary said. "We didn't pay any attention. Or I thought I might have got it in the reactor buildings. There's all asbestos in those things.
"But the more I think about it, the more I think it might have been from where they were storing it, up over our shop," Leary continued. "Then I thought how we used to go up and check instrumentation on the vents, and that whole room up there - a room bigger than a football field - was all cardboard boxes of stored asbestos. And I don't know how familiar you are with asbestos, but I've never seen an asbestos box that wasn't broken or had the top hanging off. Never.
"See, I got lucky, I didn't get sick with it," he said, explaining the asbestos damage was discovered in an X-ray when he visited the Veterans Administration Medical Center Hospital in Albany for a stomach ailment. "The other guys were sick when they finally found out what the hell they had."
Leary, 64, is one of about a dozen former Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory employees reported to have suffered asbestosis, the scarring of the lungs from the inhalation of asbestos dust. It results in a reduction of lung capacity and elasticity, an abnormal shortness of breath and can cause cancer.
Officials of the 300-member IUE Local 301 AE (Atomic Energy) said they have retained Ronald Simon, an attorney in Washington, D.C. to explore a class-action suit against the manufacturers and suppliers of the material.
Simon, an expert in asbestos cases, said he has received materials from the union, but declined to elaborate on legal action being contemplated.
Leary had retained his own attorney, Robert C. Weisenberger of Albany, to file a lawsuit at the U.S. District Court in downtown Albany - another one in a flood of asbestos lawsuits that have burdened the nation's judicial system.
At the Albany federal court, more than 400 are on file, according to a master list maintained at the court. More than 35,000 suits had been filed around the nation as of 1988, according to the Washington Legal Foundation.
"I started getting word (in 1966) of guys who were retired who were told they had asbestosis." Local 301 Business Agent Douglas W. Allen said in an interview at the IUE Hall on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady. "These guys had been working with asbestos for years and nobody told them anything now that they're retired and they're finding out.
"So I started doing some more checking and found guys who actually had cancer from asbestos. About a year ago, one of th electricians died of cancer. It came on him like that, " Allen said, snapping two fingers.
The electrician was William Baldwin of Greenfield Center, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in September 1987 and died in spring 1988. He was 59.
Baldwin had worked as an electrician for 37 years at KAPL - the first seven years at the Niskayuna lab, until he requested a transfer to Kesselring so he could be closer to home, said his wife of 40 years, Marjorie Baldwin.
Mrs. Baldwin said asbestosis was diagnosed in her husband's lungs before unsuccessful surgery in September 1987. After buried, an autopsy by a Saratoga Hospital pathologist diagnosed asbestosis, too, she said.
"It started on the outside of his lung and worked its way in." Mrs. Baldwin, 59, the mother of five children, said in a telephone interview. "He never smoked, he never drank. He'd worked with radiation and asbestos and everything."
Mrs. Baldwin said her husband avoided discussing things that were classified at Kesselring, but she knew that he had worked in "the boats" - naval nuclear reactors that contain asbestos as pipe insulation.
Did the couple worry that Bill Baldwin might be exposed to a hazard at Kesselring." "No, I never did and he never did," Mrs. Baldwin said. "Back then they never thought asbestos was anything. Then his friends began coming down with things. They were quite young. I think then he started worrying about lung cancer.
"I am angry," she said. "They took my husband, they took my friend, they took everything away from me that we wanted. We had plans for his retirement . . . There have been far too many men dying of the same thing and it's uncalled for."
Mrs. Baldwin said she has given documents and other information to the union and Ronald Simon for the expected lawsuit.
Mario Ravaioll Jr. of Avenue B in Schenectady worked for GE for 39 years - the first 11 years at the main plant in Schenectady and 28 later years at the Knolls site in Niskayuna. He was a steamfitter.
Before he retired in January 1987, KAPL physicians gave Ravaioll a final physical - and found a spot on a lung. "They really didn't know what it was , but said I'd better go see my personal physician," said Ravaioll, 62, the father of two daughters and now a grandfather.
But doctors in Schenectady failed to diagnose asbestosis, which Ravaioll had developed after years of working with the material. It wasn't until March that a doctor at Madison General Hospital in Boston identified the problem - after just a half hour of examining X-rays and biopsy reports.
When Ravaioli returned, he contacted attorney Thomas E. DeLorenzo of Schenectady to file a lawsuit.
Ravaioll's health hasn't suffered severely from the asbestosis - he is short of breath, but bowls and golfs regularly. But he and his family live with the apprehensive knowledge that he has a disease that will never get better, and could develop into something much worse.
"As a steamfitter, I worked on steampipes and whatnot over the years and back then no one ever mentioned to us the dangers of asbestos. - whether they knew or not I can't say," said Ravaioll, a member of the Local 128 of the AFL-CIO plumbers and steamfitters union.
"In the 70s it was brought out in the open and from then on, they should have taken care of it, but there were some things that weren't," he said. "In fact as late of the end of '86 we were still working with loops that had asbestos coverning on them."
Both Leary and Ravaioll said KAPL was generally safety-concious and took steps to remove asbestos when it showed signs of damage or during renovation programs.
Besides Mrs. Baldwin, at least two other bereaved have filed lawsuits alleging deaths of men who worked at Kesselring were caused by exposure to asbestos.
Henry Pennell Jr. of Saratoga Springs said his family won an out-of-court settlement in an asbestos suit over the death of Henry Pennell Sr., a former "Kesselring employee who lived in Saratoga Springs. But Pennell declined to discuss the case, saying it would open old wounds.
Eleanor Greco's husband Donald Greco, died at age 53 on March 28, 1982.
Less than a month later, Mrs. Greco filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Schenectady County alleging the lung cancer that killed him was caused by inhalation of asbestos. Asbestosis had been diagnosed in Donald Greco's lungs.
Mrs. Greco said she suspects radiation contributed to his early death, too. But while an asbestos-induced cancer leaves telltale marks, cancer induced by radiation cannot be distinguished from other cancers.
"He was their 'golden boy' that's what they called him," Mrs. Greco said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam, where she lives. "They used to call him up at 2 or 3 a.m. They'd have spills and he'd go clean up.
"He worked in radiation, asbestos and waste," she said. "he worked in those places with radiation."
Donald Greco worked at KAPL for 28 years, the first several years in Niskayuna and the remainder at West Milton. He was a salaried employee - not a member of the IUE Local 301 - and revealed to his wife little of what he actually did.
"He didn't tell me that much," Mrs. Greco said. "He was very close-mouthed."
Mrs. Greco's lawsuit has languished in Supreme Court for years without a resolution. She said the law firm she retained has done a shoddy job. But at age 72, having suffered a mild stroke in December, she is unsure if the case will ever be settled.
She has memories of a "wonderful husband" who died young, and a concern for employees at KAPL today.
"The cancer went all over his system. It was a terrible sight to see," she said. There are fellows up there, they're young and have families. "That's why I'm doing this."
Thomas Caruso was 60 years old when he died on Jan. 12, 1987 - nine months after he retired. He had worked for KAPL for about 30 years. He was a pipe fitter.
Thomas Caruso's son, Patrick Caruso of Schenectady is president of IUE Local 301 AE. He followed his father's footsteps to KAPL and the tiny union, which represents fewer than 10 percent of KAPL's 3,200 employees.
An autopsy performed after Thomas Caruso died, of pancreatic cancer, showed asbestosis in his lungs, Patrick Caruso said.
"He had a lot of asbestos throughout his lungs," Caruso said. "In this particular case they didn't isolate it down to asbestos, but they said it does contribute to and cause pancreatic cancer. But I'm not 100 percent sure. That's why I didn't pursue the case."
Allen said he believed the known, cases are a fraction of asbestos cases among both union and non-union employees alike. He said many widows may be unwilling to press their cases because of the emotional stress.
"Some of them don't know some of them don't want to know," Allen said. "Some of them have been told they have spots on their lungs and they haven't had it checked out. They don't want to know. If they got it, they figure they're going to die anyway."