The blaze on Monday that destroyed a half-block of buildings, killing two firefighters and injuring four others at Independence and Prospect avenues should cause City Hall to more intensely inspect older commercial structures, churches and homes in Kansas City.
Veteran firefighters Larry J. Leggio, 43, and John V. Mesh, 39, were fighting the Monday night blaze with others when the east side of the building collapsed, trapping four of six firefighters. Fire crews had rescued people from the burning three-story structure, which included five businesses and 16 apartments. It was the worst day for the Fire Department since six firefighters died in an explosion at a south Kansas City construction site off of U.S. 71 near Bannister Road in 1988.
The two-alarm fire on Monday, although the deadliest for the Kansas City Fire Department in more than 25 years, is just the latest trouble affecting aging buildings — particularly in the Northeast area.
▪ In August 2014 more than 60 people inside a three-story brick church at Independence Avenue and Benton Boulevard had to quickly evacuate the structure when a large section of the back wall collapsed, exposing everything inside. It was a miracle that none of the adults or children attending the three-day vacation Bible school was injured or killed. The building afterward was torn down, leaving another of many vacant lots in the Northeast area.
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▪ In April 2012 the roof of a one-story warehouse at Ninth Street and Van Brunt Boulevard collapsed during a two-alarm fire. Fortunately, the commander of the responding firefighting crew ordered everyone out of the burning building and off the roof just minutes before the roof caved in.
▪ In December 2012, a two-alarm fire heavily damaged Our Redeemer Lutheran Church at Seventh Street and Benton Boulevard. Flames roared through the roof of the structure and from the windows. Firefighters were ordered to retreat as flames quickly spread through the church. It took years, but the church has been restored and again provides services for the Northeast community.
▪ In March 2011, an early morning fire heavily damaged a mosque at St. John and Elmwood avenues. No one was injured in the structure that was built in 1914 as Gladstone Hall, which later housed a movie theater, a teen center, a bowling alley and beauty school. The remains of that structure also were razed, and a vacant lot is all that remains.
▪ In January 2011, a two-alarm fire raced through the former Thacher School at Independence and Quincy avenues. About 15 minutes after the first firefighters arrived, all fire crews were ordered out of the building. An hour after the fire was reported, part of the roof collapsed. People in the community had tried to save the building, which was constructed in 1900, but it was demolished earlier this year.
▪ In May 2011, a two-alarm fire engulfed small businesses and a former theater across the street from where the fire hit on Monday. Firefighters in the 2011 blaze were ordered to evacuate the structure. Part of the roof did collapse. That set of structures was demolished leaving one more vacant lot in the Northeast area.
▪ In May 2010 a fire in an apartment above some shops on Prospect Avenue around the corner from a May 2011 fire claimed the life of a 3-year-old.
James Garrett, public information officer with the Kansas City Fire Department, said many older buildings were better engineered than newer structures. They are sturdier and have more structural integrity.
However, because of their age, the bricks may begin to compact and crumble, and the mortar might not be as sound. However, Garrett said that because of the list of fires in the Northeast, “an argument could be made” for older buildings to be inspected more thoroughly.
The wiring and plumbing may need to be upgraded, particularly pipes carrying natural gas. In some older buildings, gas lines have been capped that had been used at the turn of the last century to provide gaslights in structures.
More intense inspections would make the buildings safe for the occupants and for emergency responders if trouble were to occur. The inspections also could help preserve more of the older buildings for future generations.
Bobbi Baker-Hughes, president of the Northeast Chamber of Commerce and a board member of the Independence Avenue Community Improvement District, said owners of older, historical structures in Kansas City need to be made aware that they have to be better stewards of the property so the buildings will last another 100 years.
“They do take more than a typical home requires,” Baker-Hughes said. Often investors don’t have that knowledge or understanding. People with historic preservation groups need to share that information.
“Our historic buildings throughout the city do need more than lipstick,” she said of cosmetic treatments that many investors are inclined to do to buildings. In addition to the Northeast area, the focus needs to be on older Kansas City buildings downtown, the River Market, midtown and the Country Club Plaza. “We’ve got work to do.”
For the safety of residents, firefighters who rush in to save them and future Kansas Citians, the effort needs to start as soon as possible.