Living With Grace

They grew up in Libby, Montana, in different homes, at different times, but breathing the same crisp air, under the same massive mountains.

For Mike Noble, Larry Hill and Helen McMillan Zak, one of those mountains – Zonolite Mountain – would change their lives forever.

It was there in the 1920s that miners discovered a deposit of vermiculite, a substance so light and so flameproof that it seemed like an industrial miracle: the perfect insulation.

But mixed with the miracle was a deadly byproduct: tremolite asbestos. Its barbed, indestructible and nearly invisible fibers floated in the dust from mines, the mills and packing sites operated for years by W.R. Grace and Co.

The lethal dust fell onto the leaves and branches. It made its way into houses and gardens. Children played in it.

Larry Hill remembers burning pieces of vermiculite, just to watch it puff and crackle. Mine workers like Mike Noble brought the dust home on their clothes, which loved ones shook and cleaned. As a girl, Helen McMillan Zak stood by the railroad tracks near her home and marveled at the glittering dust that flew from the freight cars hauling vermiculite ore.

As they breathed it in, asbestos fibers in the dust pierced the tiny air sacs in their lungs and scarred the surrounding tissue. Slowly, the asbestos began to rob them of energy, breath and loved ones.

Hundreds have died. Thousands have been exposed. Millions of dollars have been spent in litigation and medical bills. Grace executives face a federal indictment, charging them with knowingly endangering their workers and their families.

For the victims, anger, bitterness and despair are never far from the surface, but there is living to be done.

Mike Noble looks to God for help through the day. Larry Hill finds joy in his loving family. Helen McMillan Zak delights in her granddaughter and finds distraction in crocheting.

They are only three of the 2,300 people who make the regular trek to Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease, where physicians gauge the progress of the illness and try to temper its growth.

But there is no cure.

There is only the day-to-day challenge of living with Grace.

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All content copyright 2008 to present Kristine T. Paulsen. Request permission to reprint.

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