KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Thousands of people gathered Saturday at a memorial service to honor two veteran Kansas City firefighters who died when a building collapsed on them in the northeast part of the city.
Elected officials, local residents and firefighters from across the country were among those attending the Sprint Center service honoring Larry Leggio and John Mesh, who died Monday.
“The essence of their character cannot be captured by mere facts about their lives,” Mayor Sly James said at the service. “It’s in the memories that they made with their families. It’s in the unbreakable bonds that they built with their fellow firefighters. And, it is most accurately defined in their final moments of life.”
Leggio, 43, a 17-year veteran and fire apparatus operator, leaves a wife and mother. Mesh, 39, is survived by a wife and four daughters.
Fire Chief Paul Berardi told the families: “Our hearts our broken but our resolve to honor these brave men is strong.”
“I recognize your sacrifice. I thank you, for you gave more than was ever expected. You gave those who you love the most. … I vow we will never forget.”
The families were presented with two American flags that flew over the U.S. Capitol on Monday. They also received IAFF Medals of Valor from Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Two other firefighters were injured Monday as crews battled the blaze at a three-story commercial and residential structure. The two-alarm fire was the deadliest for the Kansas City Fire Department in more than 25 years.
The firefighters were within minutes of avoiding the fatal collapse, a department spokesman said. Fire dispatchers sent out a radio tone at least 2Â½ minutes before a wall of the building collapsed and told firefighters to move back to create a collapse zone, which protects them 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.
“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. The investigation was stopped Saturday for the memorial service and is expected to resume Sunday. Investigators said it could be several days before the cause of the fire is determined.
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, 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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