The Plastimet fire burned for days — but its effects lingered for years.

On July 9, 1997, a raging fire broke out in an industrial recycling factory on Wellington Street North. Toxic chemicals filled the air as the plastics burned — you could see the smoke billowing into the air as far away as Niagara Falls. Almost 300 firefighters responded, many of whom suffered short and long-term health issues in the wake of the fire.

It was the largest plastics fire in Canadian history. It was also a catalyst for change, directly altering the way firefighter health is monitored in Hamilton, and the way firefighters with health issues are compensated in Ontario.

With the 20th anniversary of the fire on Sunday, CBC Hamilton spoke to three people who were in the midst of it all.

Rob D'Amico: secretary of the Hamilton Professional Firefighters Association, deployed to the Plastimet fire 

Rob D’Amico

Rob D’Amico remembers the pain and suffering his fellow firefighters faced fighting the Plastimet fire. (Rob D’Amico)

It was a typical warm summer night. Rob D'Amico was out in the truck doing inspections with his crew when they started hearing radio chatter about a fire in the area.

"We didn't think much of it at first," he said.

But the chatter continued. After four or five emergency upgrades to the alarm, they were called in to help.

"When we got there most of the building was engulfed."

His crew was ordered to set up an aerial tower from their truck, so they positioned themselves on the nearby train tracks.

The smoke rose hundreds of feet in the air, he says. "It was unbelievable, nothing I've ever seen before."

Plastimet fire

The Plastimet fire is one of the worst environmental disaster's in Canada's history. (CBC)

At the time, all they could focus on was putting it out. But after the smoke settled, many firefighters were concerned about what they'd just been exposed to.

"Many of our guys had rashes, their skin peeled off, they had lung issues, coughing," he said. "I remember the smell of chloride in the air when we got there. We didn't know exactly what was burning, but it didn't smell good."

After the fire, in partnership with the city, the firefighters association set up a program to monitor the health of firefighters every year. D'Amico says that program has been instrumental in protecting and treating local firefighters.

"When I speak with the doctor who runs the program, he says the health and well-being of firefighters has improved."

D'Amico says he was lucky not to suffer any health issues himself — but he knows many who did.

Bob Morrow: Former Mayor of Hamilton

Bob Morrow

Bob Morrow was Hamilton's mayor when the fire burned. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Bob Morrow, Hamilton's longest-serving mayor, oversaw the city's response to the Plastimet fire.

"It was terrible, I was so worried about all the people living close by, and the proximity to the hospital," he said.

People wanted it cleaned up as soon as possible, he says. They also wanted assurance that it wouldn't happen again.

"There were many questions about how this could have happened."

Morrow spent days visiting the site and consulting with building and fire officials.

The aftermath was hard on the whole community, he says. But it was especially hard on the first responders. "There's many who have suffered since, I don't think that should be swept under the rug."

"As a community we have to be careful not to let these things happen and be mindful of how we care for those affected."

Andrea Horwath: Became a city councillor in the wake of the fire

Andrea Horwath

Andrea Horwath, Ontario NDP leader and Hamilton Centre MP, says the Plastimet fire made her want to enter politics. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

At the time of the fire, soon-to-be politican Andrea Horwath lived close enough that her property was speckled with black soot.

"I didn't really know what was going on. It was really dark in the middle of the day and I could see flakes of blackish snow falling from the sky," she said.

Once she realized what was happening, she was glued to the TV. Then she went out and started talking to people. "Much of the conversation I had with folks during and after the fire is what inspired me to run for office," she said.

Horwath was elected as a city councilor just a few months later.

Inspired in part by the death of Bob Shaw, a Plastimet first responder who died of cancer in 2004, Horwath urged the government to amend Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (OWSIA) to better compensate firefighters suffering from work-related cancer.

Horwath introduced a private members bill in 2006 that received unanimous support. An alternate form of the bill was quickly passed and additional types of cancers were added to OWSIA.

Any of the province's full-time firefighters can now be compensated for those cancers through WSIB. That includes several firefighters from Hamilton whose cancer claims were previously denied.

Before this amendment, Horwath says, firefighters and their families had to fight tooth and nail for their illnesses to be recognized.

"They don't have to fight anymore," she says.​