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One year later, the sorrow remains

Anthony Storman's tree house is empty now. But it's still perched high above an open lot in the Drew Park neighborhood where he and his best friend Scotty Perez died a year ago today.

"I just didn't have the heart to take it down," said Anthony's stepfather, Dan Radney. "The little flag is even still flying out front."

Last week, Radney and his wife, Kathy, revisited their old neighborhood and paid silent tribute to the place where their 9-year-old son and playmate Daniel "Scotty" Perez, also 9, died after inhaling toxic fumes from inside a trash bin.

"They've moved the Dumpster behind a chain link fence," Radney said. "But it's too late."

Tampa Police Department officials said the two boys were playing in the trash bin outside Durex Industries Inc. when they were overcome by chemical fumes.

The plant, at 4815 N West Shore Blvd. near Tampa International Airport, makes printing rollers, refurbishes old rollers and makes ink-cleaning solutions for the printing industry.

At the time, the Radneys were living in a mobile home near Durex, and Scotty, who lived with his mother in the Forest Hills area in north Tampa, was visiting his playmate.

The days leading up to the first anniversary of the boys' deaths have only added to both families' ever-present sorrow.

Last week, in the downtown Tampa offices of their attorney, Barry Cohen, the Perezes talked about the cheerful, outgoing little boy that Scotty was and the fateful day last year that continues to haunt them.

"This last week _ I haven't slept hardly at all," his father, John Perez, said.

"I go around that area every week," he continued haltingly, referring to the Drew Park neighborhood. "I have to go to the airport to get fuel, and when I drive by, I just don't want to see it. I turn my head."

He remembers the Friday night last year Scotty came to him and asked to spend the night at his friend Anthony's house.

He remembers going to pick up his son Saturday afternoon and finding the neighborhood's narrow streets blocked by a swarm of emergency vehicles.

He remembers sensing immediately that something awful had happened to Scotty.

Sometimes he punishes himself with thoughts of what might have been if he hadn't allowed Scotty to visit Anthony. But deep down, he said, he realizes the blame isn't his.

The real culprit in Scotty's death was Durex, he said without hesitation.

"These Dumpsters that are dangerous need to be locked up," John Perez said. "It's just pure neglect on their part. If anything, they could have bought a $6 lock."

That belief has become a crusade of sorts for Kathy Radney.

In an effort to keep other people's children safe, she has fought for a county ordinance that would regulate companies using the large trash bins.

"To know I'm protecting other children is what's gotten me through," she said. "I don't want anybody else to go through what we have."

For the Perezes, however, nothing has eased the pain of Scotty's death.

"I usually try to stay busy when I start thinking about him," John Perez said. "But even though I say this or do that, the pain is never gone."

Even the modest, working-class neighborhood where Scotty and Anthony died hasn't been able to return to the way it was before last June 13.

"Everybody's moving out," Dan Radney said, gazing at the forlorn-looking clusters of mobile homes sandwiched among the industrial companies.

He stood within feet of the empty lot where the boys died, a small triangle of brown grass that served as the neighborhood's playground.

"There's no place for kids to play but here," Dan Radney said.

The Radneys moved from Drew Park two months ago. They relocated in Dunnellon with their daughters Talesha Storman, 12, and Kathy Radney, 7. Their only regret is that they didn't do it sooner.

"We have Mr. Palm Tree on one side and Mr. Pine Tree on the other side as neighbors," he said. "They don't have any hazardous waste out there. My kids are safe."

The Radneys plan to spend today on the Rainbow River near their home, far away from the memory of what happened a year ago.

"We've knocked June off the calender," Kathy Radney said. "There are 11 months in the year now."

But the Perezes are hoping people will remember.

"I hope that this has made parents stop and look and value their children a little more than they did before, because you never know what's going to happen," Lisa Perez said.

"If anybody lives in a community like this and they see a dangerous situation like this, they ought to at least go over and make sure the Dumpster is secure. Make sure it's locked up," John Perez added.

The Perezes were estranged when Scotty died last year and remain so, but a new bond has been forged in their shared grief over their son's death.

"They've found that what unites them is what stronger than what divides them," Cohen said.

The two are working with Cohen in pursuing a wrongful death suit against Durex and Waste Aid Systems Inc., the company that owned and serviced the trash bin Anthony and Scotty died in.

The suit, filed late last year, seeks damages in excess of $15,000.

"I'm hoping it will show everybody in the community there's wrongdoing going on" in the way some companies dispose of toxic wastes, John Perez said. "I just don't want to see this ever happen to another child."

The Radneys, too, said they are pursuing a lawsuit against Durex, but said it is still in its initial stages.

In addition to the families' civil suits, federal officials are continuing to investigate Durex. The FBI joined a state environmental investigation of the incident shortly after it happened.

Elizabeth Knauss, an environmental specialist with Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, said environmental officials are waiting to see what happens at the federal level before negotiating some sort of settlement with the company.

The state cited Durex for improper disposal of hazardous waste, she said.

"The federal government and the U.S. Attorney have to proceed first," Knauss said. "I don't know if it will go to a grand jury or what."

Durex's attorney, William Frye of the Trenam, Simmons, Kemker, Scharf, Barkin, Frye & O'Neill law firm, said he could not comment on the incident because of the pending civil suits and criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, the county ordinance Radney initiated should be ready for discussion by the Hillsborough County Commission on July 13, said Susan Allan, an assistant county attorney.

The proposed ordinance would require companies to put locks on trash bins that are within 1,000 feet of elementary schools or playgrounds; it would require warning stickers on all trash bins advising of civil and criminal penalties against anyone caught putting hazardous materials inside; and it may require that stickers be placed outside bins warning the public of possible hazard, Allan said.

Kathy Radney's next step is to take her fight for safer trash bins to the state level, she said. .