The Southwest Boulevard Fire: Kansas City Remembers a Tragedy

Tuesday, Aug. 18, 1959, started out like many other summer days in the Kansas City metropolitan area, sunny with temperatures in the 90s and a south wind of 13 mph. Before the day would end, five Kansas City, MO, firefighters and one civilian would die in...


Tuesday, Aug. 18, 1959, started out like many other summer days in the Kansas City metropolitan area, sunny with temperatures in the 90s and a south wind of 13 mph. Before the day would end, five Kansas City, MO, firefighters and one civilian would die in an inferno of burning gasoline referred to...


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The irony for Pumper 25 was that the crew should not have even been at the fire that day. Pumper 25's crew had been dispatched earlier to a fire and saw the smoke from the Southwest Boulevard fire as they were finishing up. They went back to Station 25 to replace their wet, dirty hose with fresh, dry hose, a common practice following fires. Radio calls from dispatch were piped through all stations and any dispatches were heard by all companies on the department. Pumper 2 had been dispatched to the fire scene to stage two blocks from the fire scene in case it was needed. Enroute to the fire, the company was involved in an accident at 11th and Broadway and taken out of service. Pumper 25 was sent to replace Pumper 2 and stage two blocks north of the fire scene. Valentini said they arrived at the staging area and sat on the apparatus, drinking soda and watching the fire. Pumper 11 was deployed on Southwest Boulevard in front of the fire, supplying water to 2½-inch hoselines, when its pump failed. Pumper 25 was sent to the scene from the staging area to replace Pumper 11. When they arrived, the firefighters placed a 2½-inch hoseline in service from their pumper and began fighting the fire.

The magnitude of the fire brought reporters from Kansas City TV stations and newspapers to the scene. Gray and photographer Joe Adams were among those on scene. Adams was covering another event across town and Gray was at home when he got the call about the fire. Gray looked out his window at home and saw the smoke from the fire, which was quite a distance away. Gray and Adams arrived on the fire scene at about the same time. They had been at the fire approximately an hour before the rupture of Tank 4 occurred. TV reporting in the 1950s at Channel 9 centered on still photos from news scenes that were placed into a slide show on the air with narration. They did not use video and the station did not have video equipment that could be taken to a news event.

Gray was the acting KMBC news director the day of the fire and made a decision that both he and photographer thought would get them fired. He let Adams film the Southwest Boulevard fire with his personal movie camera. When the Tank 4 rupture occurred, Channel 5 had already run out of film and the Channel 4 photographer was changing the film in his camera. As a result, KMBC had the only footage of the rupture of Tank 4 and subsequent engulfing of firefighters and equipment by the burning gasoline. This film has been used in countless training sessions over the years to teach firefighters how to fight flammable-liquid fires.

Several hundred firefighters and families gathered on Aug. 18, 2009, at 10 A.M. for a memorial service to honor the five firefighters and one civilian who lost their lives 50 years earlier at the Southwest Boulevard fire. Honor guards from the Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS, fire departments presented the colors while bagpiper John Tootle played. Twenty-eight retired firefighters from Kansas City, MO, and 12 from Kansas City, KS, who were at the 1959 fire attended the service, along with families of the firefighters who died.

Also attending was Firefighter John Sirna, the grandson of Captain Peter Sirna, who was killed in the fire. John Sirna wears badge 440, which was his grandfather's badge number. He joined the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department over the objections of his grandmother.

A memorial that was built on the spot of the fire on land donated by the Union Pacific Railroad and dedicated in 1993 was refurbished and rededicated. Gray was master of ceremonies, with an invocation by Deputy Chief (ret.) Arnett Williams. Fire Chief John Paul Jones of Kansas City, KS, and Fire Chief Richard "Smokey" Dyer of Kansas City, MO, gave keynote presentations, along with Robert Wing, president of International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 64, and Louie Wright, president of IAFF Local 42. Remarks were made by Deputy Chief Robert A. Rocha from the Kansas City, KS, Fire Department. Commemorative 50th anniversary medals were given to the families of the fallen firefighters and an award was given to Gray by the chiefs of the two fire departments.

Thanks to Kansas City, MO, Fire Department Historian Ray Elder; Kansas City, MO, Fire Chief Richard "Smokey" Dyer; Kansas City, KS, Fire Chief John Paul Jones; Kansas City, KS, Assistant Chief Robert A. Rocha; Charles Gray and Tony Valentini for their assistance with this column.

ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at robert.burke@att.net.

IN MEMORIAM

CAPTAIN
GEORGE E. BARTELS, 33
Station 19, Pumper 19
Died Aug. 21, 1959, at 10 A.M. of third-degree burns
12 years, three months of service