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Blast kills 6 firefighters

DATE OF EVENT: Tuesday, Nov. 29, 1988

DATE PUBLISHED: Tuesday, Nov. 29, 1988, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: The explosions at a construction site of two trailers containing ammonium nitrate killed six firefighters, awoke people across a wide area and shattered windows in a 10-mile radius. It also changed city policy. Hoping to prevent future accidents, city officials would create a hazardous-materials response team and a marking system to identify hazardous-material storage sites. In 1997, five Kansas Citians were convicted of arson at the site and sentenced to life in prison.

Two thunderous explosions in an excavation site rocked Kansas City before dawn today, killing six firefighters and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of area residents.

A total of about 45,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate used for blasting at the site ignited the worst firefighting tragedy in the history of the city.

The first and fatal blast occurred at 4:07 a.m. after the six firefighters in two trucks responded to a pickup truck fire in a rock quarry near 87th Street and U.S. 71, near a construction site for Bruce R. Watkins Drive.

A second explosion was touched off about 40 minutes later.

Security guards told police they had seen prowlers before the pickup fire. Arson investigators were on the scene this morning.

The explosions shattered windows in a 10-mile area, knocked out power to some areas and could be heard 40 miles away.

“There was a huge cloud of smoke,” area resident Craig Weaver said. “It almost looked like an A-bomb.”

The blasts left two large craters measuring about 40 feet wide and 6 feet deep. One firetruck was a twisted hulk, and as for the other, said Fire Department spokesman Harold Knabe, “there was nothing to indicate it was ever there.”

Knabe said there were still several small fires burning at the site by mid-morning, but officials did not think they posed a threat of further explosion, even though there was still some unexploded material in the area.

Police declared the explosion site safe about 9:45 a.m. Shortly afterwards, crime scene detectives moved into the area to begin their investigation.

Residents who were evacuated were allowed to return to the area about 10 a.m.

The firefighters arrived first at the pickup fire, which was on the west side of U.S. 71. From there they saw a glow in trailers across the highway and apparently drove over to investigate shortly before the first explosion.

Battalion Chief Marion Germann, who was with the second unit, was about 300 feet from the fire when the first explosion occurred. “I reached for my radio … and at that time it blew the windshield out of the car back in may face.”

Germann’s driver was transported in a MAST ambulance to Saint Joseph Health Center.

“He was in shock,” said John Medina, a trained emergency medical technician who works at a nearby convenience store. …

Medina said a human hand was lying in front of the car. …

The first explosion involved about 30,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate stored on two trailers. The second blast involved about 15,000 pounds on one trailer.

Brown Bros. Excavating Company has been blasting in the area to clear rock for highway construction, an employee said. …

Fire officials speculated the materials were packed inside the trailer tightly and the heat from the fire caused it to ignite, Knabe said.

Knabe said fire officials are not required to be notified about explosive devices in construction areas. He said the department is notified when hazardous materials are stored in a warehouse, but in the case of the materials that exploded today, the trailer was a temporary storage area that could have been moved on a daily basis.