Too young to grasp the full significance of it all, the grandchildren of Michael Oldham shivered in their winter coats Friday as bagpipes sounded and a city remembered explosions 25 years ago.
“Sometimes it seems forever,” said Oldham’s widow, the remarried Karen Oldham-Cable. “But a lot of times the memories well up and you can remember like it happened yesterday.”
Michael Oldham was 32 when he and five fellow firefighters died in the predawn hours of Nov. 29, 1988. At the highway construction site of U.S. 71 at 87th Street, two burning trailers loaded with 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil erupted in blasts that shattered windows and woke residents for miles around.
On Friday, the fallen six were honored where it happened.
Dozens of their family members joined local dignitaries and active and retired firefighters to pay tribute at the 30/41 Firefighters Memorial. They were reminded how the tragedy that claimed the crews of Pumpers 30 and 41 changed the rules for reporting hazardous materials and responding to such emergencies.
“When there is sacrifice, there is always a recipient, or many,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, told the group. “We are they. We must maintain a Fire Department and a community worthy of the sacrifice that day.”
As Kansas City mayor pro tem in 1988, and with then-mayor Richard Berkley in China on a trade mission, Cleaver rode a helicopter over the devastation that day.
He wishes today he had turned down the offer, he said.
“War zone,” Cleaver recalled the scene. “There were bodies and things I’d like to forget.”
But in the wake of the blasts, which were heard 40 miles away, cities and state legislatures around the nation rewrote their books on storing hazardous agents and on training crews to fight potentially cataclysmic fire calls.
“What happened out of this event was the development of our hazmat response team,” said Michael Cambiano, president of Firefighters Local 42.
Local 42 maintains the grounds of the 30/41 memorial. Firefighters too young to drive a car when the tragedy occurred now come out regularly to mow the grass.
Six stone crosses, side by side, honor those killed:
Capt. Gerald Halloran and firefighters Thomas Fry and Luther Hurd of Pumper 30.
Capt. James Kilventon Jr. and firefighters Robert McKarnin and Oldham of Pumper 41.
Oldham’s son, Kyle, who was 6 at the time, is now a Kansas City police officer.
He said his father’s sacrifice motivates him “all day, every day, every week” in his own job.
He patrols the area of south Kansas City that his father’s pumper company served. Whenever he is on U.S. 71, Kyle Oldham will always shoot a glance to the narrow opening between the trees east of the highway and see the six crosses.
It’s a reflex, he said.
His sister, Jacqueline, was not yet 4 when their father died. The youngest of her three children, Zechariah, is now 4, with siblings ages 6 and 7.
Zechariah toyed with an action figure during Friday’s tribute.
Both of Michael Oldham’s children vaguely remember hearing the blasts and people crying in their home that day, but not much more than that, said his widow.
“They have memories of their dad, but I don’t think so much of the explosion,” said Oldham-Cable.
As for herself, she said she tries to avoid the site of the tragedy when driving around town.
Four people are serving life sentences — a fifth died in prison — for their alleged roles in the arson that caused the construction site trailers to explode. All maintain their innocence.
So many lives changed, in one awful instant, 25 years ago.
Mayor Sly James, speaking at the anniversary observance, said the pain and feelings of loss from the firefighters tragedy “still linger, still fester.”
And the lessons extend beyond those relating to public safety.
Stay close to family and friends, James told the gatherers. Let them know how loved they are.
Because all could change in a moment.
“The worst thing,” James said, “is if you wake up one day and say, ‘I wish I’d let them know.’”