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Jul-29-2008 04:14printcomments

Memories of the El Toro Marine Air Base: a Modern Day Ghost Town

This feature is part of a series report on contamination at the El Toro Marine base; it includes a special slideshow presentation.
Photos by Tim King

(IRVINE, Calif.) - The sound of afterburners from fighter and attack jets soaring into the California sky over the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station have been silent for almost a decade. They have been replaced by an eerie silence that envelopes the looming buildings and hangars.

Shutters crackle in the wind, doors blow open and closed, and the hangars sound like they are still populated with people, when they are completely empty. The feeling the old base puts off underscores the ghost town idea without even trying.

Tim King, 18-year old Marine
shortly before arriving at El Toro

I have many memories of my time as a Marine at El Toro and they have been flooding back over the last several days while I'm here investigating a massive hazardous waste situation; one that the Marines created by pouring massive amounts of TCE- Trichloroethylene, into the groundwater. The potent chemical degreaser manufactured by Dow chemicals did not carry proper warnings and contact with is can quickly turn fatal.

People to this day, question whether closing this flagship Marine air base was a good idea. It seems an odd contradiction in an age of increasing national security, but the health hazards that continue to emerge from TCE and other chemicals seeping under the base like Perchlorate, likely mean that the closure had to happen anyway, at least until a sincere cleanup effort was completed. Most who have studied the situation say the TCE here can not be completely removed from the earth and it will stick around for the next thousand years or so.

Many Marines and their family members who lived and served at El Toro have experienced serious health issues including cancer, mutations and intestinal disorders. These are all symptoms of TCE contamination. In some cases, likely including my own immediate family, the contamination can be passed down to the next generation. This also happened with Agent Orange contamination during the Vietnam War.

My first born son suffered a collapsed bowel at the age of four months. My wife's first born son was born with an epiglottis the size of a 40-year old man's. Both children were in ICU wards for these problems by the age of four months.

I will likely never know if TCE contamination caused these problems, but it seems very possible. I know that plenty of showers were taken during each pregnancy at El Toro base housing, and vapors in a shower are one way TCE can harm people, experts say, after it permeates a home's foundation. The shower releases the TCE through the steam.

As a Marine at El Toro, I also suffered frequent lower stomach aches. These were never resolved and flared up periodically. After I was discharged from the Marines, the stomach aches resided noticeably.

In my personal experience here, there are two stories in my mind that stand out very clearly about El Toro. One happened on my very first day there, and one toward the end of my time at El Toro. Each was bizarre and unpredictable. I offer them as a perspective and in an effort to describe the fast paced lifestyle of this huge Marine Corps facility.

A New Marine's First Day at El Toro

After making it through 13 weeks of basic training, "boot camp" at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, I was given orders to report to El Toro where I would become a tactical aircraft refueler. This role involved using portable jet refueling systems with above ground pumps that can be set up quickly in a combat zone to keep jets fueled and flying.

Marines Tim served with horse around on the
flightline at MCAS El Toro, photo circa 1982

On my first day which was in October 1981, I was on the flightline taking in all the activity of the base with outward amazement, when I watched an F-4 Phantom take off from the runway, and one of the wheels from the landing gear fell off the plane! It bounced away and the mighty jet gained altitude. The other Marines and I looked at each other, nobody could believe what they had just witnessed.

The plane, a 2-seat Marine jet fighter, flew off for a few minutes so the Marine pilots could jettison (get rid of) their "drop tanks" which carry extra fuel. Then they returned and were circling above the base.

No other aircraft were active at this point at El Toro. Marine Crash Crew vehicles all came out moving fast and they sprayed the runway down with foam. We were not sure what was going to happen next, or if they were actually going to try to land the plane this way.

When the Marine aviators brought the Phantom back they were in a tough situation to say the least. The choice had obviously been made that they were going to attempt to land the aircraft as they stayed in the immediate area for several minutes, then began an approach.

On one landing gear wheel and one strut, they landed the F-4 and used what appeared to be a great deal of finesse in keeping it straight. When it touched down the plane made sparks so huge that it looked like a 4th of July celebration. That lasted for several seconds and then the plane left the paved runway and went into the dirt.

It was a calm day in Orange County and it took what seemed like ten minutes for the dust to clear. The plane was damaged, but those guys brought it down and walked away from it. That was within the first two hours of my first day in the Fleet Marine Service. (post basic training)

A Marine's Last Days at El Toro

My last weeks of duty at El Toro were spent as a "Duty NCO" which means I was the Marine on guard duty for a lack of better terms, at the 'H'-shaped apartment style barracks where the guys from my squadron and I lived.

One Saturday night a pair of local Orange County girls came to the "duty hut" where I was located and asked if I would see if a particular Marine was in his room. I checked the Marine's three-man room and he was not there.

They came back a short time later and I checked for the Marine again, to no avail. An hour or two passed and one of the girls came into the duty hut again and she was very upset. She explained that they had walked over the the enlisted club and were having a good time, and they thought they would walk back over the the barracks I was in charge of and see if the Marine they were looking for had returned.

But then along the way, a white Toyota pulled up driven by an off-duty Marine, who offered the two girls a ride. The girl talking to me said she declined, but to her surprise, her friend got in the car and it drove off. When she found the girl a short time later, she said she had been sexually assaulted.

The girl talking to me said her friend, the victim, was sitting in their car. I went out and talked to her and she came back to the barracks area so I could find out what happened.

It seemed like it took no time at all; suddenly the girl who said she had been assaulted, pointed out the window and said "there he is" as a white Toyota drove near the barracks very slowly. I ran out of the barracks and used a parked military truck to keep the driver of the Toyota from seeing me. As he passed the front of the Marine Corps 2 1/2 ton truck, I leaned into his car and shut the motor off and removed the key. It happened fast and the slightly drunk Marine didn't have time to react. I pulled him out of his car and pinned his arm behind his back and walked him up to my barracks; 661.

I put the guy in a phone booth and had the girl come out and confirm that it was the man who assaulted her, and she said he was the same man.

That is when I took out his ID and realized he was a Staff Sergeant. The highest rank I reached in the Marines was Lance Corporal and most of my time was as a private and Pfc. A Staff Sergeant is an advanced rank that takes several years to achieve. It made his alleged actions seem all the worse as he was a figure of authority. I called the MP's and they came out and took it from there. I think in truth that they just let the guy go, and that charges were never pressed, but that was the way it went down one Saturday night in December 1983 at El Toro MCAS.

The El Toro Marine Corps Air Station was the scene of many near misses and it was also the scene of tragedies. But all the while it was home and good duty for thousands upon thousands of Marines over the years and they served here with a high degree of excellence.

To see this proud place as a ghost town today is sad, and knowing that the ground beneath your feet is seething with toxic chemicals that many local government officials dismiss or claim to know very little about, as million dollar homes are built on top of it, makes the saga downright tragic.


This article is part of a continuing series on Trichloroethylene contamination at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Southern California. Here is the slideshow of some of Tim's images of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (July 2:

Here are the other installments in this series on El Toro:
Deadly Toxic Chemicals From Marine Base Threaten Irvine Neighborhoods (VIDEO REPORT)
Irvine, California Threatened by Contaminated Water From El Toro Marine Base (VIDEO REPORT)
El Toro Water Contamination Reports Will Continue
Sick Marines and Contaminated Water: Questions Surround El Toro Marine Air Base (VIDEO REPORT)

These are all related reports on TCE:
Federal Agency Money Bickering Could Spell Doom for Sick Marines
Marine Who Lost Child From Contamination at Camp Lejeune will Appear in Washington
Marine Death Camp: Camp Lejeune Trichlorethylene - the Culprit
El Toro Marines Should be Aware of Possible Contaminant Based Health Hazards
Former Marine Testifies Over Deadly Contaminated Water at Camp Lejeune

Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. Today, in addition to his role as a war correspondent in Afghanistan where he spent the winter of 2006/07, this Los Angeles native serves as's Executive News Editor. is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website, affiliated with Google News and several other major search engines and news aggregators. Tim's coverage from Iraq that was set to begin in April has been delayed and may not take place until August, 2008. You can send Tim an email at this address:

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Penny Atkinson August 25, 2017 4:28 pm (Pacific time)

I was a LCpl working in the 3rd MAW Headquarters bldg 1983-86 under GySgt Mark Sullivan. I've lost contact with many of my Marine Corps friends but have managed to stay in touch with a few. I just came across this page by accident and reading the comments wanted to say "Hi" to William White, I'm so glad your mom is doing good and hope your sisters are to. Life sure takes us in interesting directions and I'm glad to hear that you are happy :)

Richard Daly August 25, 2016 1:28 pm (Pacific time)

I was a 20 yo Lance Corporal stationed at MCAS El Toro, CA from 1984-1986 following Avionics Technican training at NAS Millington,TN. Upon arrival there, I was amazed at the natural beauty of this base. It was surrounded back then mostly by Orange Groves and Strawberry Fields with a mountain range of one side and Interstate 5 on the other side. Being brought up in Boston,MA I especially loved the 75 degree sunny days around the Christmas holidays. This place was like a country club and such an easy duty station that my father couldn't believe that I was actually serving in the USMC. It was a two year vacation in one of the most expensive zip codes in America, even way back in the 80s single family houses in Irvine were selling for over $400,000. I saw the "RUSH" during their Moving Picture Tour in 1985 at the Pacific Coast Amphitheatre which was visible from the base. I got drunk, lost my two buddies and had to walk back to El Toro, on the way back I stole some oranges from a grove and crawled back to the barracks. Good times! There was a public bus stop on the main road of the base where we would catch a lift to the many Southern California beaches in the area like Laguna, Newport, Salt Creek, Huntington etc. Picture three lance corporals with surfboards, sunglasses and OP swimwear getting on a bus. It didn't quite fit the image of Marines charging the beach with ALICE packs, full camouflage, boots and M-16s. LOL! It saddens me to hear about the 1,1,1,Trichloroethylene and other organic solvents contamination. Ironically, I went back to school majoring in Chemistry and I work as a Bench Chemist today. Unfortunately, Today I know what that nasty stuff can do to you. Too bad the Marine Corps back then didn't know about hazardous material training, MSDS's, and cradle to grave responsibility. Lucky for me, I was on the other side of the base from the ground zero Hangers 296 and 297, near the ordinance section and the back gate. I feel bad for those guys who were not so fortunate. Best of luck to all!

William White August 14, 2016 8:44 pm (Pacific time)

I served as a military policeman at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, following graduation from MCRD, 1983-1989 with one year at Cp Butler, Okinawa in 1986. We patrolled the base, housing, stood post at the gates and on flight line security for the Air Station. I have many fond memories and many friends from my years at this base where I also moonlighted as a Enlisted/SNCO Club bar back and security when off duty. I was also there at the Air Show when the WWII plane crashed into the chapel and I helped to respond with a water buffalo for drinking water. I was also there when the F-18 crashed at another air show. My mom was sick with illness, so in 1986 the Station Chaplain helped me as I declared her as my military dependent and in 1987 I got her a place in housing when I returned from Okinawa. In 1988 the illness she had responded will to the military medical care she was provided and she got a job on the base. At first in the visitor control booth, then later at disbursing and then Navy Supply. She had later contracted intestinal, lymph and breast cancer in 1996. She has been in remission since 1999, a real blessing, she is now a retired federal employee and I spoke with her last week. I returned to active duty in the Marines at Miramar in 2000, where my wife's life was saved by the Marine Corps and I served another seven years with the last three as a successful canvasing recruiter, until 2006, where I was honorably discharged and returned back home to be with my wife of 23 years and our four children and we had another child two years later. I am now going back to college under the Post 9-11 GI Bill to earn my degree's. Two of my closest friends were there at El Toro in 1983 and they are still friends today. That Chaplain and I spoke a couple months ago, he is now retired and living in Las Vegas...a target rich environment for a Navy Chaplain who truly is a Godly leader who helps those of us that are lost to find our way back. He also was the minister at our marriage in 1993 in Chicago. I know for many Marines the Corps has been a tough and unforgiving experience and it may have caused problems, but I also believe that the Marine Corps is filled with many good men and women who really have made a difference in service to the United States as Marines. The other Marines who served dishonorably and disgraced the Corps will one day have to answer for that which they did. As for me, I learned many things and it changed my entire life. S/F

Joseph d Stout May 28, 2016 6:03 am (Pacific time)

My dad was stationed there the first years of my life. 1976 till the middle of the 80s. Maybe this is why I have a learning disability. I drank the water. Could use a little information . Thanks

George Markunas October 31, 2015 5:06 pm (Pacific time)

I was crash crew at El Toro from about 1977 to 1980. Lots of good memories. Thanks for all your work on this issue. I have no health issues, that I know of, and it would probably be hard to tell if any health issues were from my days at El Toro, my years in construction working with insulation and asbestos, my smoking, or my days of hard drinking.

Charles Olson July 21, 2015 6:15 pm (Pacific time)

I was stationed at MAG 13 from 1984 to 1987. I remember being in charge of one of the food concessions during the air shows. Most notable was the year an antique plane crashed into the base chapel. I think the pilot and passenger were killed and the building destroyed. However, the show went on. I also remember the wild bosses night my gunny invited me to at the SNCO club and equally wild Friday night happy hour/DJ at the original officers club with the pool.

Gilbert Prendez March 6, 2015 12:27 pm (Pacific time)

I was assigned to H&MS 11 from December 1972 to 1976. I don't remember which Hanger was part of H&MS 11. Can someone help me out? I am planning a Back in Time trip and am wondering if the Hanger still stands. If someone can help please email me @ fyi my MOS was 6024 Jet Mechanic. F4 Phantom

Anonymous January 31, 2015 1:03 pm (Pacific time)

My father was stationed at El Toro 1959-1964 with a tour to Atsugi Japan in 1962/63. (Earl Breeden Jr.). It was a great area to be stationed. We lived off base in Costa Mesa and then Santa Anna. I am going to check the albums as I may have pics from there during that time.

Dave S. June 22, 2014 10:01 am (Pacific time)

Tim.... I was with MAG-13 during 1976-1978. I worked out of the MAG Flight Operations Office and sometimes in the MAG Safety Office. There are some amazing memories for me on that base, especially over at the Base Stables where I had a horse. Thanks for the article and pictures.

Wally Titcomb April 5, 2014 7:14 pm (Pacific time)

I was stationed with VMGR-352, MWSG-37 in the very hangar that seems to be the problem from 1972-1976. The big thing I remember was whenever I drank the water on the base it had floaties and burned my stomach to no end. It would be good to hear from some of the guys I served with.

Please write to me at

corporal austin john s March 8, 2014 8:49 pm (Pacific time)

I served my duty in vma121 andvma242 from 1978 to 1981.after looking at some of the photos of the air base it saddens me to see them. I worked on a lot of air craft including the A4,A6 I also worked the hms11 hush house,and hms 13 maintaince. it was a wonderful saddens me to no end to see it in such disrepair

Semper fi, thanks for dropping by, yes the place is a total wreck, it is sad.

joe t. January 2, 2014 8:02 pm (Pacific time)

i was there from 79-83 at MAG 11 then to main chow hall as a cook please keep me informed of updates.thanks

Joe will do, please flash me an email,, thanks! SF

greg williams September 8, 2013 2:11 pm (Pacific time)

as a teen, i rode the public bus from irvine to laguna hills while working at budget rent a car a short distance from irvine auto center. the bus trip took about 2 hrs as it took a route that went down irvine center drive and through housing on el toro base. i know the base is long gone; does the housing still exist that families lived in?

i also, as a budget driver had the priviledge of returning a couple of pilots to the base, the only thing i've ever been so close to 'active' jets. i was allowed to drive them all the way to a hangar. they were so such cool guys and i am still surprised i didnt drive over my bottom lip as my jaw dropped from seeing those jets up close.

thanks for your service then and now

Thanks for writing Greg!

Tim King

Sandi Lou June 22, 2013 4:31 pm (Pacific time)

Thank You

frazier strutzel February 11, 2013 8:27 pm (Pacific time)


We love reading this, I have my F-4 memories of El Toro also!

J Horner January 29, 2013 5:42 pm (Pacific time)

I was stationed there in 1976-1977 with VMA-311 as an analyst. Just read about this in a DAV magazine last week. Had not heard about it until then. Sad to see those pictures.

Tim King: Thanks for dropping by, I refueled your 311 jets every day, can you tell me a date or any other info on the DAV magazine?  Glad to know about this. SF

D Goyette November 23, 2012 1:08 am (Pacific time)

I arrived at the Air Station in May 1960 after reenlisting from 5th Marines at Camp Pendleton. I was assigned to aviation operations in VMF 451 (F8-U Crusaders) in Barracks 450. Having been used to the basic accommodations of infantry life, when I looked through the windows of my assuaged barracks, I thought it was officer's quarters. There were 4 man cubicles instead of the platoon sized squad bays. I remember El Toro and Santa Ana as one of the most enjoyable duty stations a Marine could hope for. I left in 1962 for a tour on the drill field and returned to El Toro in 1965 after a tour in Vietnam. One of the most vivid memories I have of Orange County during the early 60s was the fragrance of orange blossoms. With the windows open, you could drive for miles along county roads and smell the blossoms.

Tim King: Thanks a lot for dropping by, my email is, yours is the second great former MCASET Marine contact in as many days, I too remember thinking of it as you did and I was also in barracks 449, 440 and 441, and the h barracks toward the end.  Ooh rah and Semper fi!

natasha August 22, 2012 9:59 am (Pacific time)

Is there any talk about salvaging some of the grounds and converting them into a museum or memorial of sorts?

Phil Townsend August 16, 2012 11:52 am (Pacific time)

Operations VMFAW 314-513. 1962-65 No health issues. But I lived off Base

Jacqulyn June 29, 2012 1:22 pm (Pacific time)

I also am sad to see El Toro in the sad shape it is in at present.Many fond memories my father was an air traffic controller at El Toro I REMEMBER THE TRIPS UP TO THE TOP OF THE CONTROL TOWER.

Tim King: Jacqulyn, nobody can ever take those good memories from you, I have many also, it is sad!

Ken Sokol December 21, 2011 2:42 pm (Pacific time)

I have two memories of EL Toro. 1st. In 1951-52 my dad was stationed at El Toro. One day he took me onto the tarmack and put me on the end of a rope that we used to walk a blimp into the hanger. The second was in 1970 when I was on maneuvers on El Toro and I was in that same hanger listening to the Commandant. Anyone have relevant photos I'd be interested.

Tim King: Ken be sure to check the several dozen articles under this subject by following the El Toro link.

MDoering August 23, 2011 4:33 pm (Pacific time)

I noticed that Sam Houston stated that his uncle was Col John H Doering Jr. Looking for relatives!

mike patton June 3, 2011 6:38 pm (Pacific time)

I grew up there as a kid there back 1969 to 72 when my dad was there with vmf 232 it suck to see it all gone

Sam Houston August 17, 2010 10:54 am (Pacific time)

I was stationed at Travis AFB as Flight Engineer on C-141 and was on a mission to El Toro Marine Base to pick up Predident Nixon's helicopter and a pallet of Artichocks (President's favorite) and delivered all to Andrews AFB, Maryland. At that time the Marine Air Bsse was first class. My uncle Col. John H. Doering was stationed at the base as MAW Commander.

Sam Houston August 17, 2010 10:50 am (Pacific time)

I was stationed at Travis AFB as Flight Engineer on C-141 and was on a mission to El Toro Marine Base to pick up Predident Nixon's helicopter and a pallet of Artichocks (President's favorite) and delivered all to Andrews AFB, Maryland. At that time the Marine Air Bsse was first class. My uncle Col. John H. Doering was stationed at the base as MAW Commander.

Peter G. February 1, 2010 4:32 pm (Pacific time)

Reported to MCAS El Toro 4/81. EAS-4/85. Was a plane captain with VMA-311.
Age: 49 as of 3/2010. No major health issues!

Tim King: Peter, you were a 311 Plane Captain and that means we probably saw each other every other day.  Glad to know your health is good, me too, I'm 46.  If you want to be in our loop so to speak, feel free to drop me an email,, Semper Fi Brother!  

Patrick November 27, 2009 11:46 am (Pacific time)

Mag-11 MandMS-11 L/Cpl 1980 -1984 My child has been born with birth defects

Richard Field September 22, 2009 7:33 am (Pacific time)

I was stationed at El Toro for three years 1968 through 1971. I was with HMS 33 for a kid from the midwest this was a dream come true, living is So. Calif. and seeing all the beaches that the Beach Boys sang about. I married and local girl and stayed in the area. I went into commercial real estate and after they closed lthe base I always wanted to develop the land but was very aware of the contamination. It is really sad. I was lucky and didn't have to put up with a lot of the Marine BS because I worked in a very high security area, Top secret electronic equipment. I am now back in the Midwest but have many fond memories of friends and the base.

Michael E Thompson May 22, 2009 10:56 pm (Pacific time)

Hey served on El Toro 79-83 on and off. I was a Plane Captain with VMA AW 121 Green Knights we rotated every six months. my email is I just joined Facebook to access more info and those who were there with me. MET

Bert May 19, 2009 11:48 am (Pacific time)

For any of you who spent time at El Toro (as I did from 1976-1980 - before moving on to MCAGCC 29 Palms) - there is an attorney who needs to be contacted IF you or a family member have health problems that may be from this contamination... VERY IMPORTANT - please contact him or contact Tim King @ Salem News or Bob O'DOWD @ email address: for details.. Attorney name is Michael Gates @ email address: ASAP - PLEASE, for all of our sakes... contact them.

Troy February 25, 2009 6:30 pm (Pacific time)

Tim, I was just trying to find some old pics of MCAS El Toro, where I was stationed from 87-91. I read your article and was completely floored. I know for a fact that things were not done "by the book". Hell, we never even saw the book. Now here I am with unexplainable health problems at the age of 40 due to situations out of my control as a young marine. Do you have any additional info on health related problems due to haz waste that people are suffering from that were stationed there? I will speak to my family doc soon and see if any testing can be done to determine if any chemicals I was exposed to could be the cause of my ailments. Thanks for the work you're doing, the jaw dropping pictures of my beloved duty station and Semper Fi.

donand conkel January 25, 2009 11:48 am (Pacific time)

i was stationed at eltoro in 1951 /53 iam sorry to see the base in this shape my rank was sgt.donald conkel of odessa fl. email

Kat August 17, 2008 9:34 pm (Pacific time)

I lived on the base until I was 13 when my stepfather whom was working in the tower was one of the "Cuts". Whatever that means....Anyhow, we moved And I haven't seen the Base since. In 99 my daughter was born and I heard of the base closing,When my little girl was 6 months old my mother died of cancer. I am JUST NOW hearing of the contamination on the base.  I drank that water as well as my mother and little sister . I feel Betrayed and confused, How does one know if they have been contaminated?? How do you get tested ?? How do you know ....I have had BAD HEADACHES and don't know why for years....Can you please contact me and hopefully answer some questions....AND THANK YOU SO MUCH TIM....Brightest of Blessings

Bob O'Dowd July 30, 2008 1:45 pm (Pacific time)

Tim, your slide show brings back memories of the '37 hangar (Bldg. 296). Haven't seen this building up close since December 1965, returning from overseas, I stopped in to say "hello" to some old buddies. Thought I'd be getting out after my four year enlistment, but the Corps had other ideas. All Marines were involuntarily (sound familiar) extended 120 days. The Corps was ramping up for Vietnam. With immediate plans to invade North Vietnam and no place to go, many of us were assigned to Marine Corps Reserve stations until the clock ran out. I did my extra four months at NAS Glenview. Never got back to El Toro. I’m now wondering what happened to '37 Marines who worked in Bldg. 296 and the nearby warehouses. For myself, I became seriously ill at age 43 with prostate tumors—all benign. In ’05, I had surgery for stage 2/3 bladder cancer, followed by a round of chemotherapy. I didn’t “connect the dots” until learning that El Toro had been a Superfund site and the ’37 hangar was ground zero

Sally July 29, 2008 9:40 pm (Pacific time)

Yea, probably a peeved homeowner in irvine that can't sell their house because of the plume. It's too bad the city of Irvine has done nothing to help matters even to this day.

T.F. ROWE July 29, 2008 8:32 pm (Pacific time)

Great article Tim. And no , the information is not well known. It most certainly is news.

Dan July 29, 2008 5:23 pm (Pacific time)

I have lived in Irvine since 1974 and find this article somewhat alarmist. This information has been known well before that base was closed. It is not NEWS.

CANDY July 29, 2008 7:52 am (Pacific time)


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