Kansas City firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh should not have died in the calamitous Oct. 12, 2015, blaze at a nail salon on Independence Boulevard.
The men found themselves trapped in an alley on the building’s east side when the three-story structure collapsed, sending a wall weighing nearly 70 tons crashing down on them. Two other firefighters were injured by flying rubble.
Leggio, 43, and Mesh, 39, shouldn’t have been in that alley. And a new study released this week by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirms the conclusions of both the Kansas City Fire Department’s own investigation last year and a December 2015 report in The Star: Commanders on the scene failed to communicate with firefighters adequately. They had no system of keeping tabs on who was where. And perhaps most deadly, they did not properly establish a “collapse zone” — an area where debris was likely to fall if the burning building lost structural integrity.
To his great credit, Fire Chief Paul Berardi is not passing the buck. He has made no excuses and is working to ensure the lessons learned lead to safer practices. “We want to say it occurred, and we want to correct it so that it doesn’t happen again,” he said Thursday.
In the wake of this tragedy, his department has adopted a new collapse zone policy and made other operational changes aimed at preventing similar injuries or deaths in the future. That’s among the most critical of the 16 recommendations in the new report.
But special attention should also be paid to recommendation No. 3: that the department focus on risk versus benefit. “Obviously, no building is worth a firefighter’s life; therefore, imminent risk to a firefighter’s life to save a building is unacceptable,” the report stresses.
Today, Thu Hong Nguyen sits in the Jackson County Detention Center awaiting trial for second-degree murder and causing a catastrophe. If she’s guilty, she bears responsibility for the fire’s horrors.
Firefighting is a calling, and it’s also one of the most dangerous undertakings in the world. Running into a structure engulfed in flames requires bravery that most of us can scarcely imagine. But bravado should never be valued over prudence. While saving property is an admirable goal, lives are vastly more important than porches or roofs.
All of Kansas City joined Leggio’s and Mesh’s colleagues as they mourned inside Sprint Center two days after the blaze. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recognizes that the pain can linger. It rightly notes that the survivors need peer counseling, as well as suicide prevention and intervention resources. Firefighters’ mental well-being should remain one of the department’s highest priorities.