Before Monday, more than a quarter century had elapsed since the Kansas City Fire Department lost multiple members on the same day.
This time, six firefighters stood in an alley after sunset, spraying water through windows into a three-story building ablaze along Independence Avenue. They wanted to keep the flames from spreading to a nearby grocery store.
Just minutes earlier, all firefighters had evacuated the weakened structure, home to businesses and apartments, as a safety precaution. They had completed a headcount to make sure everyone was safely out.
But only a small alley, less than 30 feet wide, separated the nearby grocery store from the burning building. So the six firefighters stood in that alley and poured water from hoses through windows into the fire.
Never miss a local story.
Suddenly, bricks and mortar and wood flew at them. The debris trapped four them. Despite quick rescue efforts, two died.
Trying to keep his composure as he spoke about the men Tuesday, Fire Chief Paul Berardi identified the dead as 43-year-old Larry J. Leggio, a 17-year department veteran assigned to Truck 2, and 39-year-old John V. Mesh, a 13-year department veteran working on Pumper 10.
They were among a large contingent of firefighters who responded Monday night to the fire at Independence and Prospect avenues.
Firefighters rescued at least two people from the northwest corner of the building shortly after arriving, and they brought out one other person before crews were ordered to evacuate at 7:52 p.m., Berardi said.
But when the wall collapsed at 8:07 p.m., it pushed debris out from the building 30 feet, Berardi said.
“Initially it looked as if it was a back draft, but after further consideration, it appears now that the second floor collapsed inside the structure, forcing the smoke and fire out of the front,” he said. “In addition to pushing the smoke out, it also pushed the east wall.
“It didn’t fall like a normal collapse. It was actually pushed out at least 30 feet for that wall.”
Within 10 seconds, a firefighter rapid intervention team located, uncovered and removed the trapped firefighters.
The first ambulance left the scene with one of the injured firefighters at 8:13 p.m. and arrived at the hospital five minutes later. A second ambulance took another firefighter from the scene at 8:21.
Despite efforts by paramedics, nurses and doctors, both firefighters were pronounced dead at the hospital.
A third firefighter was taken to a hospital at 8:23 p.m. and the fourth was taken non-emergency to a hospital at 8:27 p.m.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those lost and injured,” said Berardi, who thanked everyone who has sent the department condolences. “The compassion of the community has been amazing.”
Leggio, an apparatus driver, worked out of Station 17 at 34th Street and the Paseo. He leaves a wife and his mother.
Mesh’s pumper truck works out of Station 10 at 1505 E. Ninth Street. He leaves a wife and four daughters.
The two other injured firefighters worked on Pumper 23 out of Station 23 at Independence and Van Brunt Boulevard. One of those was treated and released from the hospital Monday night. The other left the hospital Tuesday afternoon.
One of the firefighters suffered fractured ribs, while the other was treated for lacerations.
“Today is a somber reminder that the work our employees perform in service to the citizens of our City can be dangerous and difficult,” City Manager Troy Schulte said in a written statement released Tuesday. “Each day lives are put on the line to make our City great; the legacy of firefighters Leggio and Mesh will not be forgotten.”
Mayor Sly James also expressed his condolences.
“Unfortunately, situations like this really bring home to all of us the danger that firefighters and police officers confront every day and what the consequences of that danger are,” James said.
Firefighters remained at the scene overnight, fighting the fire defensively. Fire crews continued to put out hot spots Tuesday morning.
The Kansas City Region of the American Red Cross assisted 23 people and 17 families with some level of assistance, including such things as making sure they had a safe place to stay, food, clothing and prescription medicines lost in the fire, said Duane Hallock, the agency’s regional communications director.
Those people lived at least a dozen different apartments in the building. They ranged in age from a 6-month-old infant to people in their 70s, Hallock said.
Teresa Brown lived in one of the apartments and said she had just returned home about 7:15 p.m. when she found heavy smoke pouring down a staircase in the building as smoke alarms sounded. The smoke seemed too heavy for her to go upstairs to reach anyone, she said.
“All I could do was just scream at, for everyone to get out,” Brown said. Residents escaped through the other side of the building.
Brown said she lost everything. For now, she is staying with her daughter in another part of town and finding a way to get to work each day without a car. But she is more concerned about the two men who died.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “My mind’s been concentrating on those firefighters. I can’t even think about my own loss, you know.”
In 1988, six firefighters died in an explosion while fighting a blaze at a construction site in south Kansas City.
Since then, the department sporadically has lost others on the job to a wreck, heart attacks and entrapment inside a burning building. In each of those tragedies, one person died.
The fire department plans to investigate the Independence Avenue blaze with the help of the Kansas City Police Department and a response team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Because the building was a half-block-long structure, the fire department requested help from the response team for its staffing and technical expertise.
Fire investigation experts would fly into Kansas City from across the country to help with the investigation, said ATF spokesman John Ham. The group would include certified fire inspectors and structural engineers.
“So we’ll be able to bring a lot of resources very quickly, a lot of expertise very quickly,” Ham said.
The team will use heavy machinery to sort through the rubble piece by piece while investigators research the history of the building and interview residents as well as the firefighters who were at the scene Monday night. They hope to pinpoint how and where the fire started.
“It will be a slow process.”
There is nothing suspicious at this time, but the investigators will go through it with a fine-tooth comb in case there is something there, Berardi said.
“One thing about last night is that I’m extremely proud of is the professionalism of on-scene personnel as well as the response to the tragedy,” Berardi said. “What helps us get through these times is how professional the department responded and how we reacted to the situation.
“We will continue to do our job as we do every day, as we have done every day in the past. We will continue to do so into the future.”
Staff writers Lynn Horsley and Brian Burnes contributed to this report.