Government & Politics

Recording shows KC firefighters who died were in alley six minutes after collapse zone was called

A building that burned Oct. 12 on Independence Boulevard in Kansas City collapsed, killing two firefighters.
A building that burned Oct. 12 on Independence Boulevard in Kansas City collapsed, killing two firefighters. Special to The Star

A radio recording released Friday indicates that six minutes elapsed between the time emergency tones were sounded to announce the creation of a collapse zone at a fire Oct. 12 and when a wall collapsed, killing two Kansas City firefighters.

The timing is significant because safety experts say all fire personnel should be instructed to exit a collapse zone immediately after one has been established around an empty building.

The only exception is to save lives, but never to save property, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which investigates firefighter deaths.

The exact timing could not be established previously. An edited copy of recorded radio traffic that was released to the news media several days after the fire made that impossible. It compressed the timing by editing out dead air between transmissions by firefighters on the scene and emergency dispatchers.

That recording indicated that the two firefighters who died and two who were injured might have had as little as 2 1/2 minutes to exit the alley next to a burning building in the 2600 block of Independence Boulevard.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi told The Star this month that it is common practice at his department to edit out the dead air as a matter of convenience when radio recordings are released to the public.

But he acknowledged that could be misleading with regard to the timing of events and speculated that a zone could have been called as much as 11 minutes before the collapse.

In response to The Star’s open records request, the department provided an unedited recording that shows six minutes passed between when a dispatcher sounded emergency tones on the instruction of the commander on the scene of the arson fire that night and the time the wall fell.

The tones sounded on firefighters’ radios, and a dispatcher announced the emergency.

“All companies move back, all companies move back, creating a collapse zone,” she says 33 minutes and 40 seconds after the fire was first reported.

Four minutes later, one of the battalion chiefs supervising firefighters on the east, or D, side of the building reports that firefighters were pulling a hose into the alley between the burning building and a grocery next door.

Then at 39 minutes and 38 seconds into the recording, a battalion chief reports an emergency.

“Command! Command! We had a collapse on the D side. Collapse on the D side. Emergency!”

Firefighter John Mesh and fire apparatus driver Larry Leggio died after bricks and debris fell on them.

A firefighter who was on the same hose as Mesh told The Star two weeks ago that he was unaware that a collapse zone had been established, saying he relied on his commanders to make him aware of dangerous situations.

No supervisor can be heard on the recording questioning whether firefighters ought to have been in the collapse zone four minutes after one was established. None is heard ordering them out.

The safety institute began its investigation the day after the fire. Typically, a year passes before those reports are made public.

Berardi said last week that his department’s own investigation won’t begin until the first of the year, saying emotions were too raw to ask probing questions before then.

He declined to comment Friday on the unedited recording.

The Star reported this month that the Fire Department has no written policies on collapse zones, but Berardi said the topic is addressed in the training that firefighters receive.

Along with the recordings provided Friday, the department provided written training materials at The Star’s request that address collapse zones. The materials give information on building construction and the risks of certain types of buildings collapsing, but none of the information directly addresses how fire personnel should respond once a collapse zone is established. Some departments nationally do have written policies on that.

But experts say it should be common practice to immediately evacuate a collapse zone, and Berardi agreed.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks