Government & Politics

Deadly blazes in Kansas City changed history for firefighters

Investigators looked over the scene of the massive explosion that claimed the lives of six Kansas City firefighters in 1988.
Investigators looked over the scene of the massive explosion that claimed the lives of six Kansas City firefighters in 1988.

After almost every major fire event, questions get asked after the smoke clears.

That is especially true when firefighters or citizens die. Tragedies spur extensive analysis.

Lessons learned from such incidents in Kansas City — including the two worst days in the department’s history — have had a national impact in fire-fighting circles.

One happened in 1959, when five firefighters and a civilian died after a 20,000 gallon tank of gasoline exploded into a massive fireball at a service station near 31st Street and Southwest Boulevard.

The fire started when two workers were filling their truck’s gas tank. As the fire spread, it envelop larger tanks.

Firefighters were using 12 streams of water on the blaze when the biggest tank exploded, spewing out an enormous fireball. It injured scores of firefighters from both sides of the state line.

More than 200 firefighters worked for hours to quell the flames.

Afterward, departments across the country developed better and safer techniques for fighting fires involving flammable liquids. The tragedy also led to new safety standards for the storage and handling of hazardous materials.

In 1988, a burning trailer full of ammonium nitrate exploded at a south Kansas City construction site, instantly killing the six firefighters there to extinguish the blaze.

Though they had been told that explosives were stored in the area, firefighters didn’t know what the trailer contained.

After that incident, the placement of placards indicting the presence of hazardous materials inside buildings and vehicles became standard.

The city also passed a sales tax to fund a hazardous materials response team. The unit, called HazMat 71, is named after Pumpers 30 and 41, the two crews killed in the explosion.

Eleven years later, another Kansas City tragedy prompted new life-saving protocols.

A week before Christmas in 1999, Battalion Chief John Tvedten became disoriented, got lost and ran out of air after an evacuation was ordered during a four-alarm warehouse blaze.

Rescuers could hear the alarm bells ringing on his air tank but not find the 47-year-old father in time to save him.

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Afterward, the department developed and trained rapid intervention teams, or RIT teams, to conduct fast rescues of trapped firefighters.

Tvedten, who was known for promoting firefighter safety, had suggested Kansas City develop such teams, which now are standard in the industry.

A RIT team standing by Monday night rushed in to free the four firefighters trapped by the collapsed wall of a burning building on Independence Avenue.

Two of the trapped firefighters died. They will be honored at a public memorial Saturday afternoon at the Sprint Center.

The investigation into that fire continues.