Owner of fire-ravaged property says firefighters who died ‘are angels now’

Bo Tran was upbeat last weekend. On Saturday, the Leawood businessman signed a contract with someone who planned to open a convenience store on the lowel level of a three-story building Tran owned at Independence and Prospect avenues.

The storefront at 2618 Independence Ave. had been vacant since AJ’s Bar shuttered its doors.

On Tuesday, though, Tran was reeling from the news that not only had his building been destroyed Monday night in a massive fire, but two firefighters had lost their lives when a portion of the structure collapsed.

Tran said he learned about the fire Monday night from some of the tenants. He quickly drove to the area, he said, but police weren’t letting anyone near the building.

Bill Galvin, president of the firefighters union, local 42, reflects on the death of Larry J. Leggio and John V. Mesh. The firefighters died battling a structure fire at Independence and Prospect avenues on Monday evening.

“I had to stay a block away,” he said. “I couldn’t tell what was going on. All I could see was a big fire, and lots of smoke.”

He said he felt helpless.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “There was nothing I could do.”

Tran said he got a call from the Kansas City Fire Department late Monday.

“They told me it was a total loss,” he said.

He returned to the site on Tuesday morning but it was still blocked off, he said.

He said the Red Cross had taken the apartment tenants to a hotel.

“I haven’t been able to talk to anyone yet,” he said. “I still don’t know anything.”

Tran, who owns multiple properties in Kansas City, said he bought the brick building in 1999 but does not know when it was built. The sprawling property spanned half a block, with five businesses on the lower level and 16 apartment units on the second and third levels.

He said three of the apartments were occupied by couples and the rest had single tenants. Most of the tenants, he said, are retired.

The businesses operating on the property, which runs from 2600 to 2618 Independence Ave., were Pay Day Loans; Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, which is open from December to April; LN Nails & Spa; and a bargain store called the Gracie Store, Tran said.

Tran said the building was insured but that he has no idea what the damage amount will be.

There was another fire in the building earlier this year, he said, but the damage was contained to one apartment unit and was quickly repaired.

Tran owns dozens of rental properties in Kansas City, according to Jackson County property records.

Dalena Taylor, the city’s neighborhood preservation manager, said there were no code violations or structural issues reported to the city about the Independence Avenue building. “We didn’t have any complaints on it at all,” she said.

A city spokesman said Tuesday that there are no open building code cases involving the property.

Chris Hernandez, the city’s director of communications, said the only previous case in the past 10 years was in June 2014, when Tran was cited for working without a permit on the roof of a storage structure behind the building. Tran pleaded guilty, Hernandez said in an email, and was convicted of working or causing work to be done without a permit. He paid a $100 fine and $48.50 court costs.

This wasn’t the first deadly fire in the neighborhood.

In May 2010, a young girl died and another child suffered critical injuries in a fire in an apartment building at Sixth Street and Prospect Avenue. The victims were members of a family that had just moved in.

And a year later, a fire gutted several small businesses housed in the former Vista Theater on Independence Avenue across the street from the site of Monday’s fire. That fire caused an estimated $750,000 damage to the structures. Investigators were unable to determine the cause of the blaze but said there was no evidence that it had been set.

Tran’s building was known from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s as the Dickey Gables Apartments.

Tran said in the years he’s owned it, the building has been structurally sound and he’s never had any problems with the tenants.

“I’ve had good tenants,” he said, “and they have always paid on time.”

Tran said he didn’t learn about the firefighters’ deaths until he returned from the scene late Monday and saw it on the news.

“I feel real hurt. Really, really hurt,” he said. “There’s nothing better than people like that.

“I feel that they are angels now.”

The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas