Emotional testimony on first day of firefighter arson and murder trial

Firefighters were in collapse zone six minutes after it was ordered

Recordings establish that six minutes passed between the time a collapse zone was established at a building fire on Oct. 12 and when two firefighters were killed in the collapse. Experts say they should have been ordered out.
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Recordings establish that six minutes passed between the time a collapse zone was established at a building fire on Oct. 12 and when two firefighters were killed in the collapse. Experts say they should have been ordered out.

Emotional testimony capped the first day Monday in the arson and murder trial of a woman accused of setting the fire that killed Kansas City firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio.

Capt. Steve Davis remembers instructing firefighter Leggio to pull a fan out of a window facing the alley so they could throw more water at the fire within.

“He said, ‘Sure thing, Stevie.’ “

“I made a right turn and took a couple of steps,” Davis testified. “I heard a pop and looked over my shoulder. I started seeing bricks coming down.”

He saw one firefighter partially pinned under the rubble.

“I didn’t see firefighter Mesh or firefighter Leggio,” Davis said.

They were killed on Oct. 12, 2015 when the east wall of a three-story building in the 2600 block of Independence Boulevard collapsed. It had been weakened by a fire that Jackson County prosecutors say was set by Thu Hong Nguyen, who managed a nail salon on the first floor of the building.

There were 16 residential units on the floors above. None of the tenants was injured.

Family members of Mesh and Leggio sat through testimony Monday.

Nguyen allegedly used flammable liquids kept in a store room at the back of her business. She is also accused of starting a fire in a Lee’s Summit nail salon, for which she received an insurance payout.

But defense attorney Molly Hastings said in her opening statement that she would challenge that conclusion, which would undermine the state’s case.

The 1947 building still had its original wiring and a history of electrical problems, Hastings said. Homeless people and drug dealers were known to take haven there.

Nguyen listened as Assistant Jackson County Prosecutor Daniel Nelson recounted the sequence of events in his opening statement.

Capt. Daniel Utt and firefighter Chris Anderson were in the second floor apartments, directly above the nail salon, when Utt said conditions became the hottest he has experienced in his more than 25 years as a firefighter. In the thick smoke he could see occasional flickers of flame, telling him the combustibles in the smoke could flash over at any moment.

“We need to get the (expletive) out of here now,” Utt recalled saying to Anderson.

“I was actually wondering if I was going to go home that night,” Utt testified. “I didn’t know if we were going to go through the floor.”

Anderson, Mesh, Leggio and firefighter Dan Werner were in the alley when the wall collapsed. A decision had been made to back off and create a collapse zone, but they did not get the word.

“As soon as my back was to it I was covered in bricks,” Anderson testified Monday.

He left the fire service because of the injuries he received. He still needs medication to sleep and only gets about four hours a night.

Werner said the collapse sounded like a bowling alley.

“I remember briefly looking up and seeing the wall coming down on top of us,” he testified.

Tyler Grosser and others on his rapid intervention team headed into the alley to help their colleagues when they were briefly stopped by then Fire Chief Paul Berardi, who by this time was on the scene.

“I think he was worried about a secondary collapse,” Grosser testified. “We just knew we had guys in the alley that we needed to get to.”

They saw a firefighter buried in rubble pinned against a pumper. That was Werner.

“I saw half an air pack and a helmet,” Grosser said. “Basically the body was covered in bricks.”

After initially throwing bricks off they decided to just pull him out using the straps on his air pack. He suffered several fractures and other injuries.

The prosecution intends to present evidence from an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that placed the origin of the fire, which threatened to harm 26 residents in upper floor apartments, in that storeroom. They will testify they can rule out an electrical or accidental cause.

“She was the last person out,” Nelson said at the bench trial before Jackson County Circuit Judge Joel. P. Fahnestock.

New charges
Thu Hong Nguyen

But Hastings noted that electric power to the upstairs apartments was cut by the fire before the “Open” sign in the nail salon went dark.

“If the salon was the origin someone would have seen it,” Hastings said. “The power (there) would have gone out first, not last.”

The state’s first witness was Christine Spencer, who was head cashier at Snyder’s grocery on the east side of the alley from the wall that collapsed during the fire. Spencer said she saw Nguyen in the store crying as the building burned.

Veteran firefighters Larry J. Leggio and John V. Mesh died fighting a structure fire on Monday night at Independence Avenue and Prospect Avenue, said Kansas City Fire Department Chief Paul Berardi.