Plumes of smoke still rose Tuesday afternoon from the blackened ruins of the half-block-long building at Independence and Prospect avenues.
The Kansas City Fire Department’s Pumper 10 still sat at the end of the alley to the east, its hoses trailing off under the pile of rubble that had killed two firefighters the night before. In back, another truck rested, its ladder still extended as if in salute.
And Fire Chief Paul Berardi still struggled to come to grips with the horror of Monday night, the deadliest day for the department in more than 25 years. He could barely finish a sentence without his voice breaking, especially as he identified the two fallen firefighters: Larry J. Leggio, a 17-year veteran assigned to Truck 2, and John V. Mesh, on the job for 13 years and working on Pumper 10.
Two other firefighters, hospitalized with injuries, have been released. Another two also were hurt by flying debris.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those lost and injured,” Berardi said at a news conference with Mayor Sly James standing at his side. “The compassion of the community has been amazing.”
Messages to those who loved and respected Leggio and Mesh filled social media Tuesday. Both grew up in Kansas City’s northeast area, with extensive families and many friends.
The son of a firefighter, Leggio, 43, left behind his wife and mother. The apparatus driver was known for his love of the profession, his penchant for his motorcycle and a dedication to helping his community. As one friend, Barclay Mead, put it: “He was the kind of guy you wanted to be like.”
Mesh, 39, left behind a wife and four school-aged daughters. His brother, Mark Mesh, is a Kansas City firefighter. And neighbors said John Mesh was the guy who would not only say hi, but help them in any way he could.
Leggio and Mesh were among a throng of firefighters who responded to the three-story building in the 2600 block of Independence Avenue about 7:30 Monday night.
In the end, the Kansas City Region of the American Red Cross assisted 23 people and 17 families who lived in the building, making sure they had safe places to stay, food, clothing and prescription medicines lost in the fire, said Duane Hallock, the agency’s regional communications director. Those people ranged in age from a 6-month-old to people in their 70s.
Before the structure collapsed, firefighters had rescued at least two people from the northwest corner of the three-story building, which was home to five businesses and 16 apartments. They also brought out one other person before crews were ordered to evacuate.
It’s what Leggio and Mesh were trained to do. What friends said they were meant to do.
“We know today that they’d still do the same job again if they had to,” said Bill Galvin, president of Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “They would go in, that was their job. That’s what they knew to do.”
‘I saw the wall fall’
The first trucks were dispatched to the fire at 7:27 p.m. As the fire grew, dispatchers sent additional crews. Emergency scanners lit up with news of an apartment fire along Independence Avenue.
Teresa Brown had just gotten home to her second-floor apartment when smoke alarms sounded. In the hallway, she found heavy smoke pouring down a staircase.
The smoke seemed too heavy for her to go upstairs to reach anyone, she said. She needed residents inside their apartments to know they had to leave.
“All I could do was just scream … for everybody to get out,” Brown said. The smoke was too heavy on the east end of the building, she said, so residents escaped down stairs on the west side.
When she got outside, Brown said, smoke was pouring from every apartment.
She told firefighters about a woman and her brother who were trapped on the third floor. The firefighters used a ladder to rescue the woman from her balcony and then went inside the apartment to save the man, Brown said.
By 7:52, fire officials determined that the building had become unstable, too dangerous to fight the fire from inside. An evacuation order was issued. A tone sent over their radios told all firefighters to leave the building.
Outside, a roll call was taken to make sure everyone had made it out. They had.
Firefighters continued to fight the flames. Six — including Leggio and Mesh — stood in an alley to the east of the building, spraying water through the windows. They worked with their backs to a grocery store across the alley, about 30 feet away.
Then, at 8:07, the east side of the building collapsed, spewing bricks and mortar and wood into the air and onto the firefighters, trapping four of the six.
“I saw the wall fall,” Brown said. “And (it) collapsed on them.”
Mayday calls went out, indicating firefighters in urgent distress.
“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,” Berardi 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 seconds, a firefighter rapid intervention team had found, uncovered and removed the trapped firefighters.
At 8:13, the first ambulance left with one of the critically injured firefighters, arriving at a hospital about five minutes later. A second ambulance left at 8:21 with the other critically injured firefighter.
Despite efforts by paramedics, nurses and doctors, both firefighters were pronounced dead.
Their deaths stunned people across the city. Before Monday evening, more than a quarter century had elapsed since the Kansas City Fire Department lost multiple members on the same day, fighting the same fire.
“It’s devastating,” said Brown, who lost everything in her apartment and for now is staying with her daughter. “My mind’s been concentrating on those firefighters.”
When Leggio became a Kansas City firefighter 17 years ago, he followed in the footsteps of his father, Angelo Leggio.
As a kid, Larry Leggio would listen to the scanner at home and if there was a fire, he and his mom would get in the car and go.
“Since his dad was on, that was his passion,” said Galvin, of the union. “He wanted to be a firefighter.”
His father died in 1991.
“Larry was fearless,” said Mead, his friend in Topeka. “He knew his craft well. Loved being a firefighter, loved the brotherhood. … This is kind of heartbreaking.”
John Mesh wasn’t working his normal shift Monday night; he was filling in for another firefighter, Galvin said.
“John was a quiet guy, did what he was supposed to do,” Galvin said Tuesday afternoon. “He was a great father.”
All four daughters are enrolled in the Independence School District. Superintendent Dale Herl released a statement Tuesday afternoon.
“Our hearts go out to the Mesh family,” he said. “They are part of our Independence School District family. … Our thoughts are with them during this difficult time.”
Neighbors of Mesh on Tuesday described how friendly he had been to them since his family moved into their southeast Kansas City neighborhood about 2002.
“Very friendly, very outgoing, always waving,” said Jim Johnson, who lives across the street from the Mesh home.
Debbie Pattillo Strickland, whose family has been neighbors for more than 10 years, agreed.
“You could always count on him to help,” she said.
“Whenever we would leave and go out of town, he would watch the house for us.”
Strickland’s family also would look forward to the holiday cookies that the Mesh family would bring over, she said.
Those close to Leggio also felt the hurt.
Lucy Priore, a neighbor of Leggio and his wife in Kansas City’s northeast area, came to know the firefighter for the assistance he provided her late husband.
“When my husband would fall down, Larry would always come over to get him back up,” Priore said.
“During the winter, when I would be out blowing snow off the driveway, Larry would come over and help me with that.
“… A lot of people are good on the outside, but Larry was good all the way through, inside and out.”
‘A sad day for us’
The Fire Department plans to investigate the fire with the help of the Kansas City Police Department and a response team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Fire investigation experts will fly into Kansas City from across the country to help with the investigation, said ATF spokesman John Ham. The group will 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,” Ham said.
Calls offering comfort and help also were coming in from across the country. Some wanted to send money anonymously to help the families and other firefighters.
“The community has been good,” Galvin said. “Restaurants have called, corporations have called.”
Others, especially other fire departments, wanted to make sure those in the Kansas City department knew they weren’t alone. Condolences started coming in late Monday and continued throughout the day Tuesday.
As services are planned, firefighters are expected to come to Kansas City from across the country.
“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.”
Counselors also are being brought in from the union’s international office, Galvin said.
“It’s sad to say that these two brothers are gone,” he said. “They are going to be missed. Everybody in the fire department loved them.
“It’s a sad day for us.”
Reporter Ian Cummings and photojournalist Keith Myers contributed to this report.
Fund established for families of firefighters
Kansas City has established a fund to support the families of two firefighters killed battling a blaze Monday night in the northeast area.
Donations can be made by check, payable to IAFF Local 42 and sent to 6320 Manchester Ave., Suite 42A, Kansas City, Mo. 64133.
The money will be distributed to the families of Larry J. Leggio, 43, who leaves a wife and mother, and John V. Mesh, 39, who leaves a wife and four daughters, the city said Tuesday.
7:27 p.m. The first trucks are dispatched to the fire. As the fire grows, dispatchers send additional units to help fight the fire and help rescue people trapped.
7:45 p.m. A second alarm is sounded. Dispatchers send additional trucks.
7:52 p.m. Because of deteriorating conditions, an evacuation order is given. A roll call is taken to make sure everyone had made it out.
8:07 p.m. The east side of the building collapses, trapping the four firefighters, leading to two “mayday” calls indicating firefighters in urgent distress.
Within seconds, a firefighter rapid intervention team responds and locates, uncovers and removes the trapped firefighters.
8:13 p.m. The first ambulance leaves with one of the critically injured firefighters, arriving at a hospital about five minutes later.
8:21 p.m. A second ambulance leaves with the other critically injured firefighter, also arriving at a hospital about five minutes later.
Both firefighters are pronounced dead at the hospital despite the efforts of paramedics, nurses and doctors to revive them.
8:23 p.m. A third ambulance leaves with an injured firefighter.
8:27 p.m. A fourth ambulance takes the last injured firefighter non-emergency.