Store that firefighters gave their lives protecting reopens in Northeast KC

A lot of hugging, handshaking and smiling took place between customers and employees Wednesday afternoon inside Snyder’s Supermarket in Kansas City’s Northeast area.

It felt like old friends greeting each other after a long absence. And in a way, it was.

The small grocery store on Independence Boulevard has been closed more than six months, since the October night when two Kansas City firefighters died while protecting the store from a burning adjacent building.

About midday Wednesday, Snyder’s reopened after health officials gave the OK.

When customer Maria Lowin saw one of her favorite employees, she left her shopping cart in the middle of the aisle and gave a big hug to Sharon Hooper, who works in the meat department.

“I’ve been hugging all day,” Hooper said. “I’m glad to see all the customers back.”

For more than six months, Lowin has been checking regularly — twice a week, if not more — to see when the store would reopen.

“It’s great they reopened,” said Lowin, who lives within walking distance of the store. “They were missed.”

Corine Betts has shopped at Snyder’s since her dad took her there when she was a little girl. That’s more than 40 years of shopping there. She was concerned the store wouldn’t reopen.

“It’s a joy to me,” she said. “My support is with the firefighters, and I give them my blessings, but it’s a blessing that Snyder’s is back open again for the neighborhood and for the people.”

Jennelle James, the store’s manager, said customers had been calling, sending cards and stopping by wanting to know when the store would reopen.

“I didn’t realize how much the community did need us,” she said. “That’s kind of a good feeling — people stopping by and letting us know that they can’t wait for us to open.”

The store has been closed since the Oct. 12 fatal fire across an alley to the west.

Thu Hong Nguyen of Kansas City allegedly set the fire in the half-block-long building where she ran a first-floor nail salon below apartments. Kansas City firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh died fighting the blaze when a wall collapsed. Two firefighters standing near them suffered serious injuries.

A grand jury in January indicted Nguyen on two counts of second-degree murder, arson, two counts of second-degree assault and causing catastrophe. She pleaded not guilty.

[ Kansas City says goodbye to two fallen firefighters ]

The work to get the store ready has been a tremendous effort, James said. The store was part of a crime scene for three weeks, so there was a lot of spoilage when they got back inside. Once all the products were removed, the store had to be cleaned.

“As they were cleaning, there were things that had to be repaired or redone, and it (the store) turned into a construction zone,” James said. “It took a little longer than expected, but I think customers will really enjoy and appreciate everything we have done to make it a better store.”

Workers were still putting products on the shelves Tuesday, getting the store ready for its opening. James spent the day getting the final “tidbits” in place.

Despite all the work, James was nervous about the reopening. There was a delay of several hours Wednesday while the store waited to be inspected by the Health Department.

The store has more merchandise than it had before the fire.

“I’ve added a lot of sections and new refrigeration,” James said.

That had employees and customers a little confused about where to find everything. Customers stopped employees to ask. Hooper of the meat department got confused about where the ham was while she was helping a customer.

“I’ve got to get used to where everything is,” she confessed to the customer. “I’ve got to relearn everything.”

The store at 2620 Independence Blvd. is owned by Jerry James, who was there the night of the fire.

“Every day you think about it and you have flashbacks,” James said. “You know we can rebuild a store, but those families can’t be rebuilt. That’s what it’s all about — a huge tragedy.”

The fire not only affected the friends and family of the firefighters, but its impact rippled through the Northeast community as well as the larger Kansas City community, Jennelle James said.

“It’s been a long road,” she said. “My dad and I made the decision, after we talked with our insurance company, that we would pay all of our staff every week while we were closed. At the time, we never thought it would be six months.”

All of the store’s 17 employees returned for the opening, James said. She’s hoping that the customers return as well.

Lydia Jones, who was a regular shopper at the store before the fire, said she and her husband drive by the store daily, so they had been anticipating its reopening.

“We’ve been excited about knowing that eventually it would reopen,” Jones said. “I think it’s important that people know the community has been behind them. There’s just been a lot of interest in the continued success of this grocery store. We need it desperately here in the Northeast.”

Robert A. Cronkleton: 816-234-4261, @cronkb