Miami Science Museum's asbestos scare

Vasko Jontschev thought he one day might die under Miami's most famous dome. But the 64-year-old Bulgarian immigrant never imagined he'd become deathly ill because of it.

Jontschev worked in the Miami Science Museum's Space Transit Planetarium for 32 years, first in the snack bar and later as a multimedia producer designing laser shows to accompany albums by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or David Bowie. He loved his job.

But now he believes the museum, which draws more than 250,000 people per year, has become a danger to the community. He tried for a month to convince his bosses the walls are filled with asbestos, but they ignored him. Only after he approached Riptide with his story — and we followed up — did the museum suddenly decide to close its doors.

The alleged reason: a small amount of asbestos in an electrical room, a spokesman told the Miami Herald. He claimed the closure was merely "precautionary."

"They are lying by saying it was never a danger to the general public," Jontschev says. "It's unbelievable."

Jontschev, who's slender and speaks with a thick Slavic accent in the wheezy voice of a chain-smoker, showed up in the New Times newsroom last month. He carried a dirty envelope filled with pictures, documents, and a baggie filled with insulation. He had paid to test the fluffy gray material and learned it was 15 percent amosite asbestos, which can cause cancer. The photos showed a passageway leading to a production room where he worked. The walls were crumbling — and the dangerous stuff was everywhere.

"That's the main air-conditioning unit for the planetarium," he says, pointing to an intake vent. "[The insulation] would fall on our shoulders, on our heads. Whenever we breathed, we breathed it in." Even worse, amosite asbestos is particularly dangerous when wet. "That place leaked almost every other week," Jontschev remembers. "I would have to mop it up without a mask."

Jontschev was forced to retire two years ago, after suffering a heart attack. He didn't think about the crumbling insulation at the time. Soon he developed bronchitis and thyroid problems. And when he returned to the planetarium this past October to pick up personal files he hoped would help explain his medical misfortune, he found he was no longer welcome.

"I was treated horribly," he says. "I was escorted like a criminal from the office and told to never come back." When he finally got a hold of his file, he says, it was empty. "It was like something from the KGB: Everything I did over there was missing."

So he snuck back in with a camera and some plastic sandwich bags. He snapped the photos of the moldering electrical corridor and gathered samples of the insulation. He then took them to a private lab, which verified the existence of the deadly asbestos. "Fifteen percent asbestos is well over the level considered dangerous," said Bruce Marchette, who runs a lab called Advanced Industrial Hygiene Services.

But, Jontschev says, his bosses — including planetarium Chief Operating Officer Frank Steslow — wouldn't listen to him.

Following up on Jontschev's claims, Riptide visited the museum last week. Steslow, a clean-cut, thickly built man in a tie, called the insulation "harmless." He even tried to hand us a crumbling pile of the deadly stuff. (We politely declined.) "It doesn't even concern us that much because it's not our building; it's the county's," he said. Steslow, who boasts a master's degree in environmental science, said he couldn't remember the last time the county did an inspection.

Two days later, the museum announced — surprise! — it too had discovered asbestos and was shutting down temporarily. A news release was issued. Strangely, Riptide wasn't on the recipient list.

For Jontschev, the closure was a Pyrrhic victory: The man whom co-workers once called "the Mad Bulgarian" for his bizarre laser shows had proven he's not just a "disgruntled former employee making stuff up," as spokesman Tony Lima had called him.

But the museum's cleanup could come too late for Jontschev. He has seen three doctors in the past three months for his bronchitis, which can be a symptom of asbestosis or lung cancer — both potentially caused by asbestos exposure. As his health deteriorates, his ire has expanded beyond the museum that ignored his complaints. "If Dade County didn't inspect the building or knew and never did anything about it," he says, "that's criminal."

 
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