KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kansas City fire crews were within minutes of avoiding a building collapse that killed two firefighters and injured two others, a department spokesman said.
At least 2 ½ minutes before a wall of the building collapsed on Monday, fire dispatchers sent out a radio tone and told firefighters to move back to create a collapse zone, which protects firefighters from weakened structures that could collapse.
At least six firefighters continued working in an alley “well into the collapse zone” trying to save a nearby grocery store from the flames, Battalion Chief James Garrett told The Kansas City Star. Firefighters had evacuated the building 15 minutes before the collapse. The crews would have been safe if the building had stayed intact only for a few more minutes, Garrett said.
The collapse killed veteran firefighters Larry J. Leggio, 43, and John V. Mesh, 39.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Garrett said. “And what do you say when everything you do is right, but then it just goes wrong?”
Full details of what happened at the site will not be released for some time while investigations are completed.
Garrett said that after the call to back away was issued, fire crews still had to move fire trucks and equipment. And they wanted to knock down the fire on the east side of the building, where a wall of the building eventually came down.
“So we had to actually protect that (grocery store) exposure and try to set up a fluid collapse zone,” he said. “… We can stay safe within reason doing that. . Because if we pulled out altogether, what we’re doing is we’re conceding that store as well.”
There is no national standard for how long it should take to fully evacuate a collapse zone, Garrett said.
When the upper portion of the building collapsed inside, it pushed out the bottom wall about 30 or 35 feet, Fire Chief Paul Berardi said. An aerial photograph taken by The Star shows debris covering the entire width of the alley where the firefighters were working.
Bobby Halton, a veteran fire commander and editor-in-chief of Fire Engineering magazine, said the Kansas City Fire Department is a well-trained, well-run organization but firefighting is always a dangerous job.
“You can be an excellent firefighter and you can do everything right,” he said. “But you can still get killed.”
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