A 46-year-old nail salon worker will face a judge Monday on charges she started a fire in her shop on Independence Boulevard, leading to a conflagration that took the lives of two Kansas City firefighters.
Thu Hong Nguyen could face decades in prison if convicted of arson, second-degree murder and causing a catastrophe. She has pleaded not guilty.
The case will be heard, without a jury, before Jackson County Circuit Judge Joel P. Fahnestock.
Firefighters John Mesh, 39, and Larry Leggio, 43, were killed when a brick wall collapsed on them during the Oct. 12, 2015, fire at 2600-2618 Independence Blvd.
Nguyen managed the LN Salon and Spa on the lower level of the building, which also housed other businesses and second-floor apartments where 26 people lived.
Nguyen allegedly set the fire in a storeroom before leaving the business. She was the last person seen leaving the salon at the end of the day.
Surveillance cameras show Nguyen leaving the building about 7:12 p.m. The first sign of smoke coming from the building was about 7:22 p.m.
Firefighters arrived to find heavy smoke and flames. They rescued at least two occupants of the upper floor. Others got out on their own.
The fire was soon out of control, and all firefighters were ordered to evacuate. The incident commander ordered a collapse zone, meaning firefighters were supposed to back away from the building.
At least four firefighters in the alley on the east side did not. When the exterior wall collapsed, Mesh and Leggio were buried under tons of bricks. Two other firefighters were injured, leading to two additional charges against Nguyen of second-degree assault.
Firefighters remained in the alley ostensibly to protect a grocery next door. An analysis by The Kansas City Star found that a federal safety agency had previously called it “unacceptable” to risk a firefighter’s life to save a building.
An investigation of the Kansas City fire by that same agency, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, later found that poor communication and failure to establish and maintain a collapse zone were among the key failings contributing to the deaths of Mesh and Leggio. A Kansas City Fire Department internal report reached the same conclusion.
Afterward, the department adopted a collapse zone policy that includes counting heads to make sure everyone is aware and is complying with a collapse zone order.
According to court documents, Nguyen is associated with two other fires.
On July 25, 2013, a fire started at her work station at Nails USA in Lee’s Summit. The cause was initially classified as accidental, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives took a second look after Nguyen was charged in the Independence Boulevard fire. She is now charged with setting the Lee’s Summit fire, as well.
About 10 months before the fatal fire, another one began in a vacant apartment directly above the nail salon that Nguyen managed on Independence Boulevard. Investigators determined the fire was intentionally set, but Nguyen has not been charged in that case.
Nguyen told investigators she received insurance money from both of those incidents.
Nguyen also told investigators that on the day of the fatal fire she went to a nail supply store and purchased four bottles of acetone and four bottles of isopropyl alcohol, both flammable liquids.
The building on Independence Boulevard was destroyed in the fire.