Diligent investigations into a deadly October fire in Kansas City must be relentlessly pursued. And the findings released to the public have to be the unvarnished truth.
Two crucial questions require answers.
What went wrong that night, resulting in the deaths of two firefighters?
What must the Kansas City Fire Department and other U.S. fire agencies do to prevent firefighter fatalities in similar cases?
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The firefighters were killed, and others were injured, when a building’s wall collapsed during a blaze Oct. 12 on Independence Boulevard. Prosecutors have charged Thu Hong Nguyen, who ran a nail salon in that structure, with second-degree murder and arson.
On Sunday, a Kansas City Star story raised legitimate concerns about why firefighters were still in the “collapse zone” near the building on fire — where walls can tumble down — even after supervisors reportedly had signaled for all personnel to leave.
It was disturbing to learn that the Kansas City Fire Department has no written protocol regarding collapse zones.
And Fire Chief Paul Berardi offered the troubling statement that his agency had not begun a full investigation into the deaths. His statement that emotions are still too “raw” on the Fire Department for that to happen ignores the real value of quickly getting statements from other firefighters and emergency personnel who were on the scene.
There’s also a practical reason to move quickly to get the facts: The Fire Department must be better prepared to avoid an identical sudden tragedy, which could occur any day.
In reaction to publication of The Star’s story, Berardi told other local media that it was premature and misleading to state that the two firefighters shouldn’t have been in the alley when the wall fell in. However, the fire agency has declined to release detailed information about when the collapse zone notification was sounded that night.
Fortunately, the public will not have to rely on an in-house probe of this deadly fire.
Representatives with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other federal agencies swooped into Kansas City after the blaze. They spent days gathering information. In the past, the institute has studied other building collapses and published recommendations on reducing risks to firefighters. But its report could take many months.
Any report or reports from federal officials must be independent of a Kansas City Fire Department review of the tragedy.
Based on what The Star reported, investigators could find that errors were made the night of Oct. 12 by personnel who were supervising firefighters or by those who were battling the fire.
The report also could uncover mistakes that were made in how commands were communicated.
Firefighters reportedly were in the collapse zone while they were trying to stop flames from leaping to a nearby grocery store. But protocols established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say “imminent risk to a firefighter’s life to save a building is unacceptable.”
The reports must zero in on whether saving another building was a big factor in keeping firefighters in harm’s way.
When federal and local officials have pinpointed what went wrong, they must move to the next invaluable step: What lessons were learned and how can improved training and more precisely written rules prevent firefighter deaths in the future?
Public safety agencies employ firefighters, police officers and others who rush into situations that regular citizens would not. First responders deserve the public’s appreciation for the lives they save and the injuries they prevent at great risk to themselves.
However, first responders also must learn from mistakes made in their line of work.
The best way to honor the memories of the two firefighters killed on Oct. 12 — John Mesh and Larry Leggio — is through the release of thorough, detailed reports on exactly what happened that night. The public deserves nothing less.