Amid the prayers, the tearful mourners and vows to always remember, the rescue gear of the two fallen firefighters lay on the stage.
The jackets and helmets of Larry Leggio and John Mesh reminded a grieving community Saturday afternoon of what was lost just five days before. For the first time in more than a quarter century, multiple Kansas City firefighters perished at one call.
“Our hearts are broken, but our resolve to honor these brave men is strong,” said Fire Chief Paul Berardi, pausing to keep his composure. “… I vow we will never forget.”
More than 5,000 gathered inside the Sprint Center for a community memorial service honoring the two, who grew up in the same northeast neighborhood where they lost their lives. Two other firefighters were injured while fighting that Monday blaze and are recovering.
Elected officials, area residents and grieving family members sat alongside firefighters from across the country in the somber two-hour service that combined ceremony and tradition with heartfelt family memories and photographs of the men with their families and fellow firefighters. Smiling next to a Christmas tree, hugging in wedding photos, showing children how to operate a fire truck and hanging out with buddies decked out in Royals gear.
Leggio and Mesh died when a wall collapsed Monday as fire crews fought the inferno at a three-story commercial and residential structure in the 2600 block of Independence Avenue. Before the collapse, firefighters rescued tenants from the half-block-long building that comprised several first-floor businesses and two upper floors of apartments.
Leggio was a 17-year veteran and fire apparatus operator of Truck 2 — “The Deuce” — and Mesh was a 13-year-veteran firefighter with Pumper 10. Leggio, 43, leaves his wife and mother. Mesh, 39, leaves his wife and four daughters.
“There truly are no words that will help make any sense of this,” Mayor Sly James told those in the auditorium minutes before he sang a cappella the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”
“In many ways, we feel this city has lost two sons of our own. And that’s not a loss you ever get over.”
They came from afar
Hours before the service, hundreds of firefighters from around the area and across the nation began lining both sides of Grand Boulevard outside the Sprint Center.
Some came from as far as New York, Los Angeles and Dallas to pay tribute and provide moral support. A giant American flag rippled high above the street at 13th and Grand, supported by two Kansas City Fire Department ladder trucks. Other fire trucks from throughout the region lined the downtown street.
“We heard that two firefighters from here had been killed in a collapse,” said Tom Neal, a retired assistant fire chief with the St. Cloud Fire Department in Minnesota. “We came down to show our respect.”
Neal, who retired in 2003, said he has experienced firsthand the dangers that firefighters face every day. He was standing within 10 feet of a building that collapsed from a gas explosion in St. Cloud in 1998. Four civilians died.
“It’s a brotherhood,” he said of firefighters. “Unless you live it, you really can’t understand it. When one of them hurts, we all hurt.”
All firefighters ache when one goes down, explained Lt. Ronnie Roe of Dallas Fire and Rescue.
“We could not possibly feel what they feel because it’s their people,” he said, “but we can relate to it. Unfortunately, we’ve all felt the same thing one way or another.”
Dawn Knudtson felt compelled to come from Topeka. She has family members who are emergency medical technicians.
“These are the people who run into burning buildings,” she said. “They run in while everyone else is running away.”
About an hour before the service began, commanders ordered the firefighters, many in dress blue uniforms, to stand at attention as family members arrived in an escorted motorcade. They saluted as the black SUVs carrying family drew near.
“These crews are bound together, literally, like family,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C. Attending the memorial service, he said, “is their way of embracing this department and the men and women who do this incredible work in Kansas City.”
They found another way to comfort, too.
Firefighters from nearby cities in Kansas and Missouri — including Gladstone, Independence and Johnson County — staffed various Kansas City stations so the KCFD medical and fire crews could attend the memorial service.
‘Forever in their debt’
Pumper 10 and Truck 2 flanked the stage Saturday, both draped with black bunting. Half a dozen large wreaths stood in a line. A jumbo video screen proclaimed: “Our fallen brothers: A celebration of life.”
Berardi reminded mourners that the two men did not die in vain.
At one point, he spoke directly to the men’s families, whose immediate members sat before him in the front row. Among them, Leggio’s wife, Missy, his brother, Joe, and his mother. And Mesh’s wife, Felicia, and their four daughters, ranging in age from 10 to 17. Other members included Leggio’s niece and nephew, and Mesh’s extended family and his older brother, Mark, a captain with the fire department.
“We can never fully convey our sorrow, our gratitude or our admiration for these fine men,” Berardi said, looking at the family as his voice broke. “Larry and John gave all for us, and for that we will be forever in their debt. …
“And you gave those you loved the most.”
He promised them that the men never would be forgotten.
“We will become stronger, safer, more committed and more resolved.
“KCFD will remain strong, we will learn from the incident, and we will teach what we learned.”
Berardi and James then presented American flags to each family. The flags were flown at the nation’s Capitol the day the men died.
Both leaders got on their knees and spoke to family members, hugging the firefighters’ wives and softly talking to each of Mesh’s daughters.
The families also received an IAFF medal of honor for the sacrifice their loved ones made Monday night. As they accepted the medals, their pained expressions showed on the jumbo screen, prompting many to wipe tears from their eyes.
“If you could ask the two of them right now, they’d tell you they were just doing their job; no big deal,” Schaitberger said. “The sacrifice that Larry and John made this last Monday was a big deal.
“These two men put themselves in harm’s way to protect this city and its citizens.”
Love of the job, family
Kansas City has lost many firefighters in the line of duty, said Bill Galvin, Local 42 president.
“That truth never makes a death easier to take,” he said. “They are our family. We have shared our chores, our meals, our good times and bad. … This is a loss of our family.”
Leggio’s brother, Joe, detailed his family’s pain over the past week.
He said his younger brother loved fishing, hunting and riding his Harley. He rode the bike to Colorado Springs just last month to the Fallen Firefighters Memorial.
Larry Leggio grew up dreaming of following in their father’s footsteps by becoming a member of the KCFD. Their father, Angelo, who died in 1991, spent 26 years with the department.
The fire was just a few blocks from his brother and sister-in-law’s home, Joe said.
Missy Leggio was on her way home from a grocery store, he said, when she saw flashing lights and smoke. She knew Larry’s company had to be nearby, he said, so she drove around looking for Truck 2. She called her mother-in-law as she searched, telling her “our baby is here.”
“She parked her car and walked toward the scene and she saw the structure collapse and flames engulf the area,” Joe said. Moments later an ambulance sped away.
Another firefighter cradled her in his arms and took her to Berardi’s vehicle, he said.
“They rushed her to the hospital to be with her dying husband, my brother,” he said.
As for Mesh, he had three passions in life — hunting, being a fireman and, most important, his family, said his niece Giovanna Caponetto.
“My uncle was a very private and humble man,” she said. He loved to climb into his camouflage clothes and spend a day in the woods with his brothers and daughters, she said.
“He wanted nothing more for us than to be there for each other at all times,” she said, at times barely able to speak.
She read messages from Mesh’s four daughters.
From Adriana, 17: “His job was saving people. That’s what he loved to do.”
Alyssa, 16, said she’s always looked up to her father.
“Never would I have expected this to happen to you,” Caponetto said, relaying Alyssa’s words. “… I know you will be at my graduation when I walk across that stage, and when I go off to college, and when I one day walk down the aisle.”
Alexandria is 13. She said, “My daddy was a great man for a lot of reasons: his sacrifice, courage. … I can’t wait to see you again.”
Alicia, 10, said, “We all love you so much, Daddy. I just know you will come home.”
After Caponetto spoke, the memorial drew to a close with a symbolic sign-off for firefighters who die in the line of duty.
First came three bells, then a last alarm. A dispatcher’s voice called out the men’s names and their truck and pumper numbers.
“The last alarm for fire apparatus operator Leggio and firefighter Mesh has now ended,” she said. “They have gone home.”
As hundreds of firefighters filed out of the service, they walked in front of the stage past where the men’s gear lay. One by one, with tears in their eyes, they stopped to touch their fallen brothers’ helmets or jackets one last time.
How you can help
A fund to support the families is available through IAFF Local 42. Tax-deductible donations can be made by check, payable to IAFF Local 42 and sent to 6320 Manchester Ave., Suite 42A, Kansas City, MO 64133. Sympathy cards may also be mailed to the same address.