Kansas City Fire History

William Keith takes a look at the history of the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department.


All photos from William Keith Collection. Special thanks to Kansas City Public Library Special Collections George C. Hale, chief of the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department from 1882 to 1902. Hale made a great impact on the U.S. fire service through his various inventions, including...


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Flooding has been a recurring problem in Kansas City over the years, with the Missouri and Kaw rivers meeting there. Major flooding and accompanying fires occurred in 1951, as shown in this view along Southwest Boulevard at 31st Street. Note the gasoline bulk plant in the center foreground with storage tanks overturned and floating. This bulk plant played a tragic part in the history of the fire department just eight years later.


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The Kansas City Fire Department handled its largest-ever mass casualty and rescue incident on July 17, 1981, when two aerial walkways collapsed in the lobby of the Hyatt-Regency Hotel. Hundreds of couples were dancing at a popular big-band tea dance in the lobby when the "skywalks" collapsed, trapping many people under tons of debris. The death toll was 114, with 188 people injured.

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The gasoline bulk plant at 31st and Southwest Boulevard made its mark again in the history of the Kansas City Fire Department. On Aug. 18, 1959, a fire in that bulk plant erupted in a major explosion which brought death to five firefighters. On a stifling hot, humid day, firefighters in boots, helmets and little other protective equipment man hose streams in the middle of Southwest Boulevard, directing them at gasoline burning around four 21,000-gallon horizontal storage tanks.


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Feb. 14, 1986, was a memorable Valentine's Day for the Kansas City Fire Department. A fire in a vacant apartment building under renovation went to five alarms. The three-story structure was fully involved when the first companies arrived at 8:55 P.M. The photo shows a turret stream protecting a school just 14 feet south of the fire building. Then, with the same shift on duty, at 4:08 A.M. Pumper 25 responded to what was reported as a truck fire at 11th and Hickory. Upon arrival, they found fire showing from the second floor of a three-story tire warehouse. This fire also went to five alarms, the first time ever that a single shift caught two five-alarm fires.

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A five-alarm fire in the historic Coates House Hotel on Jan. 28, 1978, resulted in the deaths of 20 residents. A firefighter is seen assisting a resident down an aerial ladder from the north wing of the building, while the upper two floors of the south wing of the six-story building become fully involved with fire. The south wing of the building was a total loss.

Memorials Pay Tribute To KC's Fallen Firefighters

The history of any big-city fire department is remembered in terms of its tragedies and its losses. The miraculous rescues and heroic saves are all but lost with the passage of time. The tragedies live on in the minds of everyone citizens as well as firefighters forever. Nothing can ease the pain of the loss of a life but when it is the life of someone who has dedicated his or her life to protecting others, it is particularly painful.

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Photos from the William Keith Collection


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Early monuments to Kansas City, MO, firefighters who were killed in the line of duty took the form of elaborate grave markers. Shown above (from left) are those in memory of Barney McBreen, Joseph McArdle and Michael Haney.

Kansas City, MO, has had its share of pain over the years but probably none more painful than on Nov. 29, 1988, when an act of arson took the lives of six Kansas City firefighters.

The first firefighter to give his life in service to his city was Barney McBreen, a member of Hook and Ladder 1. At age 27, McBreen was drilling with a Pompier ladder at the Midland Building when he fell eight stories to his death on Sept. 3, 1889. That was 18 years after the first paid hoseman was hired by the city. Five more line-of-duty deaths occurred in the following 10 years.