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Firefighters killed in alley shouldn’t have been there

The Oct. 12 fire, reported about 7:30 p.m., appears to have been set in a nail shop on the ground floor of the building.
The Oct. 12 fire, reported about 7:30 p.m., appears to have been set in a nail shop on the ground floor of the building. Special to The Star

Unacceptable.

That’s what a federal agency says of firefighters being positioned near the walls of a burning building that is in danger of collapsing, just to protect an adjacent building.

Yet that’s exactly what happened when two Kansas City firefighters were killed more than seven weeks ago, according to interviews and analysis by The Kansas City Star.

On the evening of Oct. 12, Dan Werner was among a half-dozen firefighters who were tucked in an alley fighting a two-alarm fire on Independence Boulevard. In an interview Friday, his first since the tragedy, Werner echoed a Fire Department official in saying the firefighters were focused on keeping the fire from spreading to an empty grocery store next door.

“We certainly checked and felt comfortable enough to walk down the alley,” Werner said. “We couldn’t hit the fire any other way. The concern is the grocery store is going to be affected by it.”

Werner said the firefighters had entered the alley with a pumper captain, who then left to consult a chief or another captain on next steps.

What Werner didn’t realize is that an order had gone out and they were in a “collapse zone” — a dangerous place where building debris could fall. Within minutes, the wall would come crashing down on them, killing firefighters John Mesh, 39, and Larry Leggio, 43. Werner suffered serious injuries and has yet to return to work.

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There is no written protocol at the Kansas City Fire Department dealing with collapse zones, but the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) — one of the agencies investigating the Kansas City fire — is very clear about what is acceptable inside those zones.

“Obviously, no building is worth a firefighter’s life,” NIOSH said in a report on a 2012 Philadelphia building collapse, which also killed two.

“Therefore, imminent risk to a firefighter’s life to save a building is unacceptable.”

Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi, in an interview Wednesday, agreed that firefighters should not have been stationed in the alley.

“You have an order to evacuate, you evacuate,” he said. “It’s an order.”

And yet, almost two months later, Berardi and others in his department are still unsure what went wrong.

Although NIOSH started its probe the day after the fire, the Kansas City department has yet to begin formal interviews for its own investigation.

Emotions are still too “raw” for that, Berardi said.

Werner said he has not been interviewed by either NIOSH or the fire department yet, but he told The Star what happened that night in the alley. (See accompanying story.)

Werner said he did not know a collapse zone had been established that night but is confident his supervisors would not have put his life and the others’ lives in danger.

“I completely trust them; they always make good decisions. Our safety is paramount to them. It always is. Without question. Their priority is the safety of their firefighters.”

But in the absence of final reports, questions remain:

▪ Were firefighters ordered into the alley, or did they go on their own initiative?

▪ Why were they still in the danger zone after the command to move back?

▪ Why were they trying to save a supermarket next door?

For now, Berardi said, he doesn’t have those answers.

“Because I wasn’t in that alley,” Berardi said, “I don’t know what they were doing.”

What is known: The firefighters should not have been there when the wall fell on them.

Most dangerous

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says someone set the blaze that led to the deaths of Mesh and Leggio. The Jackson County prosecutor has charged the owner of a nail salon on the first floor of the building — there were businesses on each side of the salon and apartments above — with arson and two counts of second-degree murder.

The first alarm was sounded around 7:30 that Monday night. Thick, black smoke billowed from the building occupying half a block near the corner of Independence and Prospect Avenue.

“Do you know if everyone is out?” the 911 dispatcher asked one caller.

“I’m thinking so,” the caller said, but that person wasn’t sure.

Fire crews arrived and found heavy smoke coming out of the back side. That first alarm was followed by a second. The apartment residents were rescued and the fire raged out of control.

At 7:52, all firefighters were ordered out of the building in the 2600 block of Independence Boulevard, just before the top floor fell in. From then on, the main objective was to keep the flames from spreading, as the building would be a total loss.

It was 15 minutes after they got out of the building that the east side of the brick structure collapsed, killing Leggio and Mesh.

Sometime in the interim, the incident commander had ordered the establishment of a collapse zone, and the alley was well within that zone.

Collapse zones are areas where debris may scatter if a burning building collapses. The general standard is that they be 1 1/2 times as wide as the building is tall.

For a three-story building like the one on Independence Boulevard, that amounts to roughly 45 feet. The alley was just 30 feet wide.

“Hey, give me emergency tones,” the commander said. “I am going to move everybody back. We are going to create a collapse zone.”

The exact time that command was given is unknown because the recorded radio chatter made public by the Fire Department has been condensed to eliminate gaps when no one was speaking.

But it was at least 2 and a half minutes before the collapse and perhaps as much as 11 minutes, Berardi said. On Wednesday, he promised to provide The Star with the exact time, but as of deadline for this edition he had not done so.

Radio traffic indicates firefighters were positioning trucks to provide water streams from above, called fly pipes, to attack the blaze from the flanks of the east side of the building.

Working under an incident commander were battalion chiefs, who gave orders to the pumper and truck companies.

It’s unclear from interviews who ordered firefighters into the alley. Werner said he wasn’t sure.

Werner, who was assigned to Pumper 23, said he and Mesh from Pumper 10 had dragged a hose into the alley. The captain from 10 had walked in with them but then left to consult a chief or another captain to see what to do next, Werner said.

Meanwhile, he saw Leggio nearby, trying to knock an exhaust fan out of a window of the burning building so Mesh could have a clearer aim at the fire with a hose.

Werner said they were in the alley for two or three minutes before the collapse.

Radio traffic reflects that a battalion chief assigned to the alley side of the building, referred to by firefighters as the “D side,” had been communicating with the incident commander on the south side.

The recording indicates they were aware that firefighters were in the alley after the establishment of the collapse zone and were continuing to battle the blaze.

“Command, this is D David,” the battalion chief said on the radio after the collapse zone was set up. “23 is on the D David side. They are putting a line into operation without a water source. If you have anybody available that can bring them a water source, they can use it.”

Soon after, the battalion chief again radioed the commander.

“Command, command. We had a collapse on D side. Collapse on D side. Emergency … Respond to mayday. We got a collapse.”

Collapse zones

A collapse zone is the most dangerous area at a fire scene, said retired deputy New York City fire chief Vincent Dunn, who has written four books on fire safety and helped in the investigation of the World Trade Center collapses on 9/11.  “Once collapse is anticipated and a danger zone defined, no firefighters should enter it,” Dunn has written.

Yet Mesh, Leggio and other firefighters remained in the 30-foot-wide alley after the collapse zone was ordered.

The alley was a dangerous place to be, based on the distance alone. But the fact that there was a wall at their backs on the other side of that alley, limiting any possibility of escape, made it even more dangerous.

“Restrictive alleys or short-width side streets with limited clearance exposures present a high risk,” said Christopher Naum, a national instructor on fire safety. “Bottom line: It’s not the best place to deploy and maintain operations — the results are predictable.”

Predictable in the sense that all firefighters know that building collapse is always a possibility. From the first trucks’ arrival, Berardi said, Kansas City firefighters are trained to position their equipment on the corners of buildings because the corners are stronger than facing walls and least likely to collapse.

Firefighters confront the dangers of being injured or killed in or around a collapsing building all the time. The risk comes with the job, and commanders are always weighing those risks in making their decisions.

“Determining if a wall might collapse at a fire,” Dunn said in an interview conducted by email, “is a life-and-death decision made by incident commanders every day.”

On Oct. 12, the Kansas City commander did just that.

Entering a collapse zone should only be done after someone on the scene has weighed the risks, according to the report on the collapse in Philadelphia.

“The crucial question,” the report said, “that any incident commander must ask is, ‘What could I potentially save in relation to the risk being taken?’ 

Saving property is not enough.

In the alley

Yet in the week of the deaths, Fire Department spokesman James Garrett said the firefighters were trying to protect the grocery on the other side of the alley.

“Because if we pulled out altogether, what we’re doing is conceding that store as well,” Garrett said.

Werner, the injured firefighter, also said he and the others were attempting to keep the fire from spreading to the supermarket.

But last week Berardi said he didn’t know whether the commander on the scene was trying to save Snyder’s grocery. If he was, however, Berardi is certain he would not have sent firefighters into the alley.

If there was a decision to protect Snyder’s, Berardi said he thinks the commander would have positioned firefighters on the roof of the supermarket or farther away from the alley. Radio traffic indicates streams were being set on corners of the building.

Still, Berardi said he couldn’t speak with certainty because the department’s investigation hasn’t been conducted.

It would surprise him if the firefighters had gone into the alley without orders.

“Our incident command system is defined very well that those orders are fed up and sent back down,” he said.

The department did not respond to The Star’s request for the names of the commander and other supervisors on the scene.

Berardi also ruled out the only two reasons that, according to NIOSH, are acceptable for risking firefighters’ lives in a collapse zone: to rescue someone, or to quickly and cautiously set up a portable, unmanned device, also known as a street pipe, for spraying water on a fire to keep it from spreading.

But they weren’t rescuing anyone, Berardi said, as the building had been cleared of all occupants and firefighters had been ordered out 15 minutes before the collapse.

He didn’t think a street pipe was being set up, and Werner confirms that.

As for evacuating the alley, Berardi said it’s possible the firefighters in the alley had not heard the call for a collapse zone. Fires are loud, chaotic scenes.

It’s the job of the command structure to get everyone out of the zone and set up barriers reminding them to keep out.

Homer Robertson, deputy fire chief in Fort Worth, Texas, said if his fire department had experienced a deadly incident such as the one in Kansas City it would have created an independent review panel to look into what, if anything, went wrong.

“We don’t want to admit when we make mistakes,” said Robertson, who has written about building collapses.

While Kansas City is doing its own investigation, Berardi said the NIOSH report will provide an unbiased, independent assessment.

“They don’t pull any punches,” he said. “It’s not always what the fire chief would like to hear.”

But he said the report, which could take a year to complete, will be a good learning tool for his department and the industry as a whole.

For now, Kansas City doesn’t have written protocols for collapse zones, Berardi said, but they are part of the training regimen at the fire academy and it’s reinforced in refresher training exercises.

“We are trained even to prepare for a collapse going in,” Berardi said.

The Fort Worth department, however, has written protocols for collapse zones — including how they should be marked — and Robertson said all fire departments should.

“If you don’t, that’s an area you need to work on,” he said.

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