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A hazardous materials explosion that occurred 20 years ago this month claimed the lives of six Kansas City, MO, firefighters. A nine-year investigation determined that the fire that caused the explosion was deliberately set and five people were convicted of the crime. New research, however, has led to the case being reopened with the possibility of those convictions being overturned.
On Nov. 29, 1988, at 3:40 A.M., the Kansas City Fire Department received a call for a fire at a highway construction site. The fire was reported by a security guard at the site to be in a small pickup truck, but in the background another security guard could be heard saying "the explosives are on fire." Pumper 41 was dispatched to the site with a captain and two firefighters (in Kansas City, a fire apparatus with a pump is called a pumper). Dispatch cautioned Pumper 41 that there may be explosives at the site.
Pumper 41 arrived on scene at 3:46 and found two separate fires burning. A second pumper company was requested. Pumper 41 also requested that dispatch warn Pumper 30 of the potential for explosives at the site. Pumper 30 arrived on scene at 3:52. Four of the six firefighters on Pumpers 30 and 41, including both officers, had received hazardous materials training through National Fire Academy (NFA) field courses. Four had completed the NFA course "Recognizing and Identifying Hazardous Materials." One of the firefighters and one company officer had also taken the NFA field course "Hazardous Materials Incident Analysis." According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) Technical Report on the incident, "Both courses downplay the potential explosiveness of the type of blasting agent involved in this incident." They go on to say that "this impression needs to be corrected."
Because there were two separate fires at the site, the crew from Pumper 30 suspected arson and requested that the police be dispatched to the scene. Approximately five minutes after the arrival of Pumper 30, Pumper 41 requested a battalion chief be sent "emergency" to the scene. There was a great deal of confusion at the site as to whether there were explosives on site or whether the explosives were involved in the fires. Following the extinguishment of the pickup fire, Pumper 41 proceeded to the other fires to assist Pumper 30. A truck, a trailer and a compressor were on fire at 4:02. None of the vehicles or trailer appeared to be marked. There were no indications that the firefighters suspected any explosives were involved in the fires they were attempting to extinguish.
As it turns out, the "trailer" that was on fire actually was an explosives magazine. At 4:04, Pumper 41 contacted Battalion Chief 107, who had been dispatched to the incident. Pumper 41 indicated that "Apparently, this thing's already blowed up, Chief. He's got magnesium or something burning up here." At 4:08, 22 minutes after Pumper 41 arrived and 16 minutes after Pumper 30 arrived, the magazine exploded, killing all six firefighters assigned to Pumper 41 and Pumper 30.
Battalion Chief 107 and his driver were just arriving on scene and stopped about a quarter-mile from the explosion. They received minor injuries when the windshield of their vehicle was blown in. Following the first explosion, the battalion chief ordered firefighters to withdraw from the area and a command post was set up at a safe distance from the site. Approximately 40 minutes after the first explosion a second blast occurred, followed by several smaller explosions. It is likely that the actions of the battalion chief prevented additional deaths and injuries.