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Investigators sift through Independence Avenue debris pile and interview witnesses

Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives helped sift through debris from the fatal fire on Independence Avenue with the help of large excavators Thursday.
Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives helped sift through debris from the fatal fire on Independence Avenue with the help of large excavators Thursday. Special to the Star

Investigators looking for clues in Monday’s deadly fire on Independence Avenue used hand-held shovels, garden rakes and a claw-equipped construction excavator Thursday to sift through the debris.

Several investigators focused on the collapsed building’s east side, shoveling bricks and other debris into piles that colleagues sorted through.

“We started on the east side because we want to know as much as we can know about the side that collapsed,” said John Ham, public information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“We want to do everything in our power to educate ourselves and be able to educate the fire service on that collapse.”

Firefighters Larry J. Leggio and John V. Mesh died after the east wall collapsed Monday night as fire crews tried to put out the roaring blaze. Before the collapse, firefighters rescued tenants from the half-block-long building containing first-floor businesses and two upper floors of apartments.

Investigators examined bricks Thursday for any signatures that flames may have left that could offer clues regarding the fire’s source and path.

A claw-equipped excavator dragged large wall sections onto Independence Avenue. That helped investigators with a national ATF response team to, for the first time, step slowly through the jumbled debris, Ham said.

Members of the Kansas City Fire Department and the Kansas City police bomb and arson squad helped sort the broken brick and charred wood.

Investigators again brought cadaver dogs to the debris pile, letting them loose to climb among the wreckage. Although officials believe all occupants escaped the blaze, transients or homeless people occasionally had been reported around the building’s exterior, Ham said.

An ATF video specialist will examine any available surveillance video and process cellphone video that some neighborhood residents provided investigators.

Investigators interviewed 30 witnesses Wednesday, Ham said. The Kansas City Police Department supplied translators to help interview tenants who do not speak English.

Several firefighters who battled the blaze were to be interviewed Thursday. An ATF peer support member trained in post-traumatic stress disorder was on the scene, Ham said, ready to assist firefighters troubled by their experiences Monday night.

Two members of the New York Fire Department post-traumatic stress team also were in Kansas City, said James Garrett, Kansas City Fire Department spokesman.

Meanwhile, planning continued for the public memorial service scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Sprint Center. Firefighters from across the region are expected to attend, Garrett said.

Brian Burnes: 816-234-4120, @BPBthree

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