Widows' Demand: What Killed Area 51 Workers? -- Women Outraged About Silence On Mystery Illnesses

LAS VEGAS - In her tidy trailer, the widow dabs at her eyes and presents proof that the man she loved for more than four decades - "my Wally" - existed. Proof that he was born, worked, sacrificed, lived and died. An ordinary man, but one like no other.

His name was Walter S. Kasza, and Stella Kasza wants you to know that, damn it, he existed.

She displays his Army papers: He landed in Europe in '44, fought in the Ardennes, earned three bronze stars. On the paneled wall hangs their wedding portrait - St. Norbert's Church in Detroit, 1950 - and pictures of their children.

"You're together that long, you eat together, you sleep together," Stella says, her voice dissipating to a sigh. More tears, another tissue.

From the pantry she retrieves a brown paper bag full of empty pill vials. For years the doctors couldn't figure out why Wally was coughing so much, why his skin cracked and bled, turning their bedsheets red. They prescribed ointments, antibiotics, decongestants, pain killers.

His guts ached for years, too, and when they finally found the kidney cancer, even morphine didn't help the pain. He died in April 1995, a wraith, 73 years old.

"Memories," she says bitterly, tossing the vials into the bag. "Nobody gives a damn. Nobody."

National security at stake

Bill Clinton did not kill Wally Kasza, but he has been forced to deal with his widow. The administration maintains an abiding interest in the lawsuit Stella Kasza has brought against the federal government.

Under a "presidential determination" that he must renew annually, Clinton has decreed that potential evidence related to Kasza's death is classified, top-secret, a matter of national security - and that "it is in the paramount interest of the United States" that none of it be disclosed.

Why should Wally Kasza matter?

He was a sheet-metal worker. For seven years he put up buildings and installed cooling systems for a defense contractor at an Air Force base in the middle of the Nevada desert.

But that base, about 100 miles due north of here, is the most mysterious in America.

Stella Kasza and the rest of America know it as Area 51.

What's being covered up there, according to lawsuits filed by Kasza's widow, another worker's widow and five former Area 51 employees, are brazen environmental crimes.

For several years, the workers say, they labored in thick, choking clouds of poisonous smoke as hazardous wastes were burned in huge open trenches on the base. Military officers armed with M-16s stood guard as truckloads of resins, paints and solvents - materials used to make the Stealth bomber and other classified aircraft - were doused with jet fuel and set ablaze.

Another sheet-metal worker at Area 51, Robert Frost, died at age 57, allegedly from exposure to hazardous wastes. Biopsies showed that his tissues were filled with industrial toxins rarely seen in humans.

What is the government's response to these stories? Nothing. The policy is that nothing illegal occurred at Area 51 because, officially, nothing occurs at Area 51.

That position infuriates Stella Kasza because it makes her husband disposable, a nonentity. She sees it this way: If, officially, Wally Kasza didn't work at Area 51 for seven years, then, officially, his death didn't have to do with his job. He didn't get cancer. Didn't suffer so horribly that his son wanted to smother him with a pillow to end it all.

Representing John Doe

"Someday I hope to visit Stella and not make her cry," says attorney Jonathan Turley.

Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. He directs its nonprofit Environmental Law Advocacy Center. He represented Wally Kasza before he died.

He would meet Kasza in secret, fearful of detection by military investigators. His campus office remains sealed by federal court order because the government says Turley's files hold documents that are classified.

The Area 51 workers he represents face 10 years in prison if they are caught disclosing anything about their jobs. In court papers, they are identified only as John Doe.

The plaintiffs aren't asking for money; they want information on the chemicals they might have been exposed to so they can get appropriate medical treatment.

And they want an apology.

They'll probably get none of the above.

Turley had hoped that the Pentagon might cover the workers' medical bills or allow them to be treated for free by military doctors.

He asked the Justice Department to give his clients immunity and launch a criminal investigation. Instead, the Justice Department, the EPA, the Air Force and the White House erected a stony wall of secrecy - not denying the charges, but not confirming them, either.

`They're watching you'

The litigation puts the government in the position of trying to keep secret a 40,000-acre complex where airplanes and buses full of workers arrive every day. (Hundreds commute from Las Vegas's main airport on 737 jets that bear no external identification numbers.) Not only have Russian satellites photographed the base - huge blowups are for sale locally - but it can be observed from a nearby mountain.

The metal sign at the border of Area 51 identifies it as a "Restricted Area." It warns that anyone who trespasses comes under the jurisdiction of military law. You may be shot.

Solar-powered robotic video cameras observe anyone who approaches Area 51's perimeter; parabolic microphones pick up conversations.

"They're watching you now," Jonathan Turley says, hiking up a ridge about 13 miles from Area 51.

On a paved road nearby, a white-and-silver bus barrels by in a cloud of dust. The bus is evidence that people work at Area 51.

The workers say that nothing could leave the base, and that's why everything was burned. Some men had to scramble into the pits after the ashes cooled to ensure complete incineration, increasing their exposure to toxins, according to the lawsuits.

No compensation

The widows' outrage started because of $300. About 10 years ago, Robert Frost, who was foreman of the sheet-metal workers at Area 51, became so ill he missed a week of work. By then his face and body were scarred by scales and red welts. His legs buckled when he tried to walk.

Frost filed a claim for lost wages; his employer, Reynolds Electrical & Engineering, fought it.

By the time a hearing was held in 1990, Frost was dead of a liver disease that doctors associated with exposure to smoke containing dioxin and dibenzofurans, chemicals found in plastics and solvents. But the compensation claim was denied after a company superintendent testified that no burning occurred at Area 51.

Frost's widow, Helen, was furious. She wanted to file a wrongful-death claim, but lawyers told her there was nothing to be done.

She found a Washington watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight, that was willing to investigate. She knew of several other widows and workers. One was her husband's good friend Wally Kasza - a guy so tough he worked up at Area 51 until he was 69, when he became too sick to go on.

Wally and "Frostie," as friends knew him, were union brothers in Local 88. Now their widows are united in their scorn for the federal government, lending their names to the lawsuits Frost vs. Perry (against the former secretary of defense) and Kasza vs. Browner (against the EPA administrator).

Stella Kasza points to the wall. A studio portrait taken several years ago captures her loving gaze as she poses next to a still-handsome old devil with wavy gray hair, the guy whose big grin and blue eyes first made her swoon when she was 15, when he lived down the block.

A sappy country song is playing on the radio. Stella turns it up, up, up, as loud as she can stand it. Something about having one last night together on the town. She sways across the room, alone, trying not to cry again.