It was tragedy that many feared was bound to happen.
As a woman trapped inside a wrecked, burning car screamed for help Saturday, firefighters stationed less than a mile away were oblivious. Copper thieves had prevented dispatchers from alerting the fire station.
Precious minutes passed before a backup system alerted the fire crew. By then, the car’s driver was dead and two others suffered burns, including a woman who was critically injured.
The Kansas City Police Department on Tuesday released a dashcam video of the accident on its YouTube channel.
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Officials said that even with a quicker response, they don’t know whether the driver could have been saved, but they think a quicker response could have made a difference for the other victims.
“From the information that I have, I think the car went up in flames rather rapidly, and I don’t know if the driver had a chance,” Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said Monday. “As far as injuries to the second person, certainly that person spent at least four and half minutes inside that car that they likely would not have spent inside that car if those lines were not severed.”
Berardi said he thought it was the first incident of its kind in the area. A spokesman for a national trade association said it could be the first in the country in which a copper theft thwarted the ability of first responders to get to the scene of a life-and-death situation.
“This is the first one we’ve witnessed,” said Michael Adelizzi, the executive vice president of the American Supply Association, a nonprofit association that represents distributors and suppliers in the heating, cooling, plumbing and piping industry. “It was just a matter of time.”
Though the huge economic toll of copper theft has been well-documented, the dangers that copper thieves create have not.
The country has dodged many potentially tragic situations, Adelizzi said. Among those: In Chicago, thieves stole copper from switching equipment that could have resulted in a catastrophic train derailment or collision. In California, pipes stolen from pumps led to elevated levels of arsenic in water. In 2008 in Jackson, Miss., copper thieves disabled several tornado warning sirens that didn’t work as a storm bore down on the city.
At least three deaths have been attributed to copper thefts. In 2007, thieves stole lines from a propane tank outside a home in rural Iowa, igniting an explosion that killed an 80-year-old man. In 2011, after copper thieves knocked out street lights in Miami, a vehicle driving on the darkened roadway struck and killed a woman. In 2010, thieves caught stealing copper at a Canadian mine beat a security guard to death.
In addition, dozens of would-be thieves have been electrocuted while trying to steal copper or other metals to sell for scrap.
Berardi said his department plans to work with city officials to determine what can be done to prevent a repeat of Saturday’s situation.
“We can look at additional technology and see if there are are any improvements there,” he said.
Officials know the thieves struck after 1:30 a.m. because crews at Station 23 at Independence Avenue and Van Brunt Boulevard received a call to respond to a cardiac arrest.
According to AT&T, the damage happened just before 3 a.m. to equipment at East Ninth Street and Elmwood Avenue.
In a written statement, company officials said the theft triggered an alert system. Voice and data services for some customers were affected, although the company did not specify how widespread the problem was.
The company is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Calls can be made to the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-TIPS (816-474-8477) or AT&T asset protection at 1-800-807-4205.
Shortly after the theft, a car that had eluded an attempted police stop crashed and burst into flames at Scarritt and North Hardesty avenues in the Northeast area.
Police officers quickly notified fire dispatchers. Officers pulled one person from the vehicle and emptied all their fire extinguishers, trying to douse the flames.
At 3:07: a.m, a fire dispatcher sent an alert through the phone system to Station 23 to respond to the wreck. It didn’t go through.
Three minutes later, after hearing no response from the crew, the dispatcher called the station. That call did not go through.
Within seconds, the dispatcher triggered a backup system that rang bells at the station and prompted a firefighter to his use personal cell phone to contact the dispatcher, Berardi said.
Meanwhile, witnesses heard a woman in the vehicle scream for help.
Once firefighters arrived, they pulled the woman out of a rear window while other firefighters doused the car.
On Monday, Berardi became emotional when asked about the impact of the incident.
“It is not only a tragedy to the people involved, but also the responders at the station are extremely upset because they felt they could have gotten there four and a half minutes earlier and possibly could have done something,” he said.
City officials previously have taken steps to thwart copper thieves. Recyclers cannot purchase metal without proof that the seller is the owner or is authorized to sell the items, said Councilman Scott Wagner, who proposed the ordinance that passed in 2012.
“Obviously, we are not doing enough,” Wagner said Monday. “We are getting into the areas of life and safety.”
Wagner said he plans to study what should be done next.
Adelizzi said that his group has unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to make copper theft a federal crime.
Uniform laws would prevent thieves from crossing state lines to sell the stolen material in a state with less restrictive laws, he said.
“Right now, it’s easy money,” Adelizzi said. “Because of the life-safety issues, we’re trying to make it more difficult for people to do.”