If a burning Independence Avenue structure had held together just a few minutes longer, the tragedy that befell Kansas City on Monday night might not have happened.
Kansas City fire officials were in the process of establishing a “collapse zone” when the east wall of the half-block-long building crumbled onto four firefighters, killing two of them, a department spokesman told The Star.
Collapse zones protect fire crews by moving them away from danger lurking in weakened walls, ceilings, roofs, floors, overhangs or other parts of a burning structure that could collapse. Experts recommend that the zone be equal to 1 1/2 times the building’s height.
At least 2 1/2 minutes before Monday’s collapse, Kansas City fire dispatchers sent out a radio tone and told firefighters, “All companies move back, all companies move back. We are creating a collapse zone.”
At least six firefighters continued to work in an alley east of the burning building even though the alley was “well into the collapse zone,” a Fire Department spokesman confirmed Friday.
That alley, about 30 feet wide, separated the burning three-story building from a neighboring grocery store, which fire crews hoped to save.
The crews would have moved out safely — if only the building had stayed upright a few more minutes, Battalion Chief James Garrett told The Star.
Instead, the wall tumbled. Maydays sounded. A rapid-response team began digging out trapped firefighters. Medics reported starting CPR on one. Commanders requested more ambulances and all available fire rescue units.
Veteran firefighters Larry J. Leggio, 43, and John V. Mesh, 39, died.
Radio recordings released Friday by the Fire Department captured the intensity of the fast-moving, two-alarm fire, from the first 911 calls about heavy smoke in the building through the arrival of multiple ambulances called to transport victims of the collapse.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Garrett said of how events unfolded. “And what do you say when everything you do is right, but then it just goes wrong?”
Structure collapses killed 142 firefighters across the country between 2000 and 2012, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
Anticipating if, when or how a structure will collapse is a difficult proposition for even the most experienced fire commanders, the experts say.
Alan Brunacini, former fire chief of Phoenix and author of a textbook on fire scene management, recounted being at fire scenes with structural engineers who have been caught by surprise by a collapse.
“A fire affecting the structural integrity of a building is hard to detect from the outside,” he said.
Past incidents have been studied extensively, including a 2006 Alabama collapse that killed two firefighters. That incident prompted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to craft several recommendations to minimize the risk to firefighters.
“The potential for structural failure always exists during and after a fire,” the institute’s report said. As a result, a “collapse danger zone” always must be established.
A building’s age and any renovations made to the structure can impact a building’s collapse risk, experts say. The weight of water being poured into a structure when fire has weakened its interior supports also plays a role.
Clues such as falling debris, sounds from within the structure, a sagging wall or changes in smoke patterns can alert a fire commander to an imminent collapse, Brunacini said.
But sometimes there is no warning, he said.
So even though firefighters had evacuated the Independence Avenue building 15 minutes before the collapse, they remained at risk.
“There is no safe place on the fire ground,” said Homer Robertson, a commander with the Fort Worth, Texas, Fire Department who has written about the unpredictability of building collapses and the risk they pose for firefighters.
Many firefighters tend to relax when they switch from “offensive” operations inside a building to “defensive” operations outside, he explained in an article for FireRescue magazine.
“In reality, defensive operations subject us to as much risk of injury from collapse as interior operations if we’re not observing good collapse zones,” he wrote.
“Too many firefighters and chief officers have been injured or killed as a result of operating inside the collapse zone.”
The Kansas City, Kan., Fire Department tries to adhere to the 1 1/2 -times height standard, said Senior Assistant Chief John Peterson.
“If it’s a 1 1/2 -story house, if we get out to the street then we are usually safe,” he said. “On a larger structure, we always try to stay outside of the collapse zone area.”
Full details of what happened Monday night in Kansas City are unlikely to become public for some time, until after investigations are completed and reports released.
But Garrett said that after the call to back away from the building went out, fire crews still had to move fire trucks and pull back equipment. Plus, firefighters wanted to knock down the fire on the east side.
“So we had to actually protect that (grocery store) exposure and try to set up a fluid collapse zone,” he said. “... We can stay safe within reason doing that. … Because if we pulled out altogether, what we’re doing is we’re conceding that store as well.”
There is no national standard for how long it should take to fully evacuate a collapse zone, Garrett said.
According to the dispatch recording, the incident commander announced the collapse zone’s establishment after firefighters had evacuated the building and taken defensive positions outside.
“Give me emergency tones,” he told the dispatcher. “I am going to move everybody back.”
Soon, he announced which battalion chiefs were overseeing operations on various sides of the building.
Crews working on the building’s east side became Group D, overseen by the battalion chief known as Car 102.
“They are putting a line into operation without a water source,” Car 102 radioed at one point. “If you have anybody available that can bring them a water source, they can use it.”
Someone radioed a response about water.
Then the collapse happened. Mayday calls started. A battalion chief requested three ambulances — then four.
More calls went out for water to attack the fire near the collapse. More department fire crews rolled out of their stations to head to the scene. Crews reported a major collapse on the building’s west side.
“OK, I believe we have all the patients free at this time,” an unidentified commander said from the east collapse scene. “They are packaging for transport.”
But then a breathless voice came over the air.
“I need my next ambulance to the rear,” the person said. “We have a critical. I need them to the rear.”
Later, a medic reported CPR in progress on a firefighter being taken to Truman Medical Center.
An aerial photograph taken by The Star shows debris covering the width of the alley.
It was “a bit unusual” for debris to spew as far as it did, said Richard Lehmann, former Liberty fire chief and now chairman of the fire service administration program at Johnson County Community College.
Other experts described what happened as a “sudden and catastrophic” collapse.
Brunacini, who has been to Kansas City numerous times, and Bobby Halton, a veteran fire commander and now editor-in-chief of Fire Engineering magazine, commended the Kansas City Fire Department for being a well-trained, well-run organization.
But no matter how well-trained or experienced, a firefighter has a dangerous job, Halton said.
“You can be an excellent firefighter and you can do everything right,” he said. “But you can still get killed.”