Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi was so overcome by a wave of emotion Wednesday morning that he couldn’t make it through a promotion ceremony at Fire Department headquarters.
Berardi said his thoughts raced back to a year ago when firefighters Larry J. Leggio and John V. Mesh died fighting a blaze in a building at 2608 Independence Blvd. A wall collapsed on the structure’s east side, spewing bricks and other debris into the alley where the firefighters stood. Two other firefighters were injured.
“It was just about the responsibility an individual takes in the next step up the ladder and how much a responsibility that is,” Berardi said about becoming emotional. “It just kind of brings back the memories and makes us remember.”
In the past year, the Fire Department has worked to implement a series of recommendations that included a policy on how firefighters should work around building collapse zones, new policies on emergency decision-making, training and a review of mayday communication policies.
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But Wednesday was a day for reflection.
“The loss of anybody is difficult, and when you have someone taken at such a young age and in a tragic way, that is difficult,” Berardi said.
Mesh’s daughter Alyssa stood before a crowd at a vigil Wednesday evening in honor of her father and Leggio. She recounted some of the memories she had forged with him during her first 16 years of life.
She was stoic, yet held back tears as she shared her feelings about missing her father.
The vigil was held at the site of the Independence Boulevard fire.
“This past year has been really hard on all of us,” Alyssa Mesh said. “If there was some way that I could go back to that day, I would have never let him go to work.”
Leggio’s widow, Missy, also shared memories of her husband. She thanked fellow firefighters for pitching in whenever she needs work done around the family’s home. She also thanked members of the Mesh family for being united in each family’s time of grief.
“I know each and every one of you have that one story, if not more (about Larry Leggio), that you hang on to,” Missy Leggio said. “And it hits you in that really sad moment that you miss him the most. We need to continue to remember that story.”
Over the past week, Berardi and others have accompanied the families of the fallen firefighters to memorial sites and events in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Emmitsburg, Md.
“There is no doubt in my mind that people are still grieving, but we will get over it,” Berardi said. “We have to, and we have to continue to do our jobs.”
Berardi said the Fire Department is planning an annual event starting next year that will honor Leggio, Mesh and other firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
Firefighters and their families continued to be emboldened by the support they have received during the past year. Berardi said the outreach they received from individuals as well as from the Kansas City Royals and the Kansas City Chiefs was especially noteworthy.
“It has not been a surprise to us, we know Kansas Citians are very giving,” he said. “The compassion from the entire community has been overwhelming.”
It will be at least two months before the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is expected to release its findings of the Oct. 12, 2015, fire, Berardi said.
“We have made some improvements, and we continuing to make improvements,” he said.
Prosecutors charged Thu Hong Nguyen, 44, of Kansas City, with first-degree arson and two counts of second-degree murder, or felony murder because the deaths happened as a result of the arson. Hong Nguyen remains in custody in the Jackson County Detention Center.
She is expected to go to trial in April.
Berardi said he used the one-year anniversary as an opportunity to further express his gratitude to paramedics and firefighters for their hard work and dedication.
“I thanked them for their resolve, to continue to do their jobs and to continue to serve,” he said. “I acknowledged the hard work they have done over the past year and to stay the course, continue to be motivated and be resolved to fulfill their oath to serve.”