6 Firemen Die in Huge Blasts in Kansas City

November 30, 1988|LARRY GREEN | Los Angles Times Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY — Six firefighters were killed Tuesday when explosives being used at a highway construction site erupted in a series of powerful blasts that Kansas City authorities say may have been intentionally triggered.

"This is being looked at by our murder squad," said Sgt. Gregory Mills, Kansas City's police spokesman. He said the alibis of four people are being investigated but offered no additional information.

Three thunderous pre-dawn explosions vaporized one fire truck, wrecked another, broke windows 10 miles from the site in southeastern Kansas City, and carved three bomb-like craters in the rocky brown soil, two of them 30 feet wide and 8 feet deep. Firefighters had been called to the scene to fight a fire in a pickup truck reported by security guards. They called in an additional engine crew when a second fire was spotted in a trailer.

Preliminary reports put damage from the blasts at more than $1 million, most of it the result of broken glass. Several gas leaks were also reported after the explosions.

"It looks like a battlefield," said firefighter Joe Valdiviez, who viewed the scene. "Like it was hit with artillery shells." A fire department official driving to the scene said he saw the white flash of one of the smaller explosions 30 miles away.

Used to Enhance Dynamite

In all, 40,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate stored in construction trailers exploded. At least 30,000 pounds of the compound, used to enhance dynamite blasts, was mixed with kerosene.

"They (firefighters) probably had no idea what was in those trailers," said Edward W. Wilson, the city's fire chief.

A fire department spokesman, Harold M. Knabe, said the mobile-home-sized trailers apparently carried no signs to announce that they contained explosive materials.

"They had no indication what was in the trailers, because if they had, there naturally would have been a different approach," he said.

More than 1,000 pounds of dynamite also stored at the site did not explode.

Blamed for 1947 Blast

Ammonium nitrate, which is also used as an agricultural fertilizer, was blamed for one of the country's worst disasters, the 1947 explosion at Texas City, Tex., when a shipload of the compound blew up, killing more than 550 people, injuring 3,000 and causing more than $500 million in damage. "There are good indications that this was not an accidental occurrence," said City Manager David H. Olson.

Kansas City homicide and bomb and arson detectives along with federal FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents teamed up in the investigation. Federal agents were present because explosives were involved, because federal money is being used in the midtown highway project and apparently because the incident occurred near the Missouri-Kansas state line.

Authorities said they did not know if the two construction companies working at the two-acre site were having labor problems or whether there was any reason for the suspected arson. They did say, however, that the site had been hit by vandals before.

The tragedy began to unfold shortly after 3 a.m. Tuesday when a pair of security guards at the highway construction site noticed and began searching for two prowlers.

While they were patrolling the site, a pickup truck belonging to one of the guards was apparently set on fire, and firefighters were called to extinguish the blaze at 3:41 a.m.

Spotted Red Glow in Trailer

Fire department logs show that the first fire truck arrived six minutes later and set to work extinguishing the truck fire. Then the firemen called for a second engine crew after spotting the red glow of a fire in a nearby construction trailer.

Both trucks were training their hoses on the trailer when, at 4:03 a.m., an estimated 15 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded.

A battalion chief arriving at the site said his car was blown 30 feet by the blast.

Fire radios crackled with calls as dispatchers unsuccessfully tried to raise the two fire companies. Authorities now believe all six were killed instantly. A second blast and a smaller third blast occurred 15 minutes later.

Uncertain about whether more explosives were stored at the site, frustrated firefighters kept back from the smoldering ground until well after daybreak before confirming their fears.

Two Captains Killed

Dead were fire Capts. James Kilventon Jr., 54, and Gerald Halloran, 57, and firefighters Robert McKarnin, 42; Michael Oldham, 32; Luther Hurd, 31, and Tom Fry, 41.

City flags were lowered to half-staff and will remain there for the rest of of the week in honor of the six firefighters. A trust fund was initiated for the families of the victims.

Not since 1959, when five firemen perished in a petroleum fire, has the department known such grief.

Shortly after noon Tuesday the remains of the six were carried from the construction site, each borne on a fire truck, the same way the men had come to that place.

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