On Nov. 29, 1988, at 3:40am, the Kansas City (Mo.) Fire Department received an alarm for a vehicle fire at a highway construction project.
Pumper Company 41 arrived on scene 6 minutes later and found two separate fires, prompting them to send for a second pumper company, while they extinguished the truck fire. The second company, Pumper 30, was advised of possible explosives and arrived on the scene of two trailers on fire six minutes later. Pumper 41 finished extinguishing their vehicle fire and met up with Pumper 41 to assist. Neither company knew was that the burning trailers contained approximately 50,000 lbs. of a highly volatile ammonium nitrate/fuel oil mixture.
Sixteen minutes later, it happened.
A massive explosion occurred, instantly killing all six firefighters on scene. A battalion chief and driver who were about a quarter-mile away sustained minor injuries when the windshield in their vehicle was blown in. The explosion shattered windows within a 10-mile area and could be heard 40 miles away. A second explosion occurred about 40 minutes later, although fire crews were staged at a safe distance at this time.
Repeated radio calls to the two companies went unanswered. Due to the darkness, firefighters were forced to wait until daybreak to in order to safely venture into the area and search for their missing brothers. What they eventually found were the incinerated remains of both companies and a massive crater.
Arson was immediately suspected. The tragedy set off a far-reaching investigation into who started the fires that ultimately led to the fatal explosion. However, it was not until 1996 that a grand jury issued indictments for five people: Darlene Edwards, Richard Brown, Earl Sheppard, Bryan Sheppard and George Frank Sheppard. All five were convicted of aiding and abetting the arson that caused the deaths of the firefighters, a capital offense. They were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The story takes another turn.
In 2008, The Kansas City Star reported that 15 witnesses in the case were allegedly pressured to lie during the defendants’ trials, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the case. Defense attorneys claimed they were never given a one-page police report that could have helped the defendants during their trial 12 years prior. They said the report could have been used to implicate other suspects in the case, namely two security guards who were on duty the night of the explosion.
The investigation is still underway.
A video tribute to the men and the incident:
Rest in Eternal Peace Our Brothers:
Capts. Gerald C. Halloran, 57, and James H. Kilventon Jr., 54,
and firefighters Thomas McKarnin, 42, Thomas M. Fry, 41, Michael R. Oldham, 32, and Luther E. Hurd, 31.
News Coverage as the situation developed: