30 years later, former KMBZ reporter remembers KCFD's worst day

Six men were killed by an explosion Nov. 29, 1988

Marc LaVoie
November 29, 2018 - 5:32 am

KMBC Channel 9 News

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At 3:40 a.m., Nov. 29, 1988, six Kansas City, Mo. firefighters in two pumper trucks were dispatched to the report of a pickup truck on fire at a construction site near 87th Street and U.S. 71. It was their last call.

On the 30th anniversary of the worst disaster in the history of the Kansas City Fire Department, retired KMBZ reporter Dan Verbeck remembers the day that two explosions took the lives of the six men and touched off years of investigations.

Verbeck was jolted awake around 4 a.m. by a blast that was heard 50 miles away. He heard something on his police scanner that tipped him off that something terrible had happened.

"When you listen to dispatchers and police and fire responding back and forth, you start to notice that there are changes in voices that you are familiar with, and it tells you there is a lot of stress going on," Verbeck said.

Fire crews had just put out the first of two small fires they found. Dispatchers warned them that two large trailers contained explosives that were used to break up limestone for excavation. The first blast occurred before a supervisor could tell the firefighters to fall back.

The trailers contained a combined 50,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and other chemicals. The same explosive that killed 167 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, only five times the amount used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Murrah Federal Building.

Over the years Verbeck became friends with the lone survivor of the blast, Battalion Chief Marion Germann, whose vehicle was maybe 400 yards behind the two pumper trucks carrying the firefighters who were killed. Verbeck said Germann took responsibility for his men, and the explosions left him a broken man.

"They were dead, right there, almost in front of him, except he couldn't see anything," Verbeck said. "Marion grieved over that for many years, up to the time he died."

Verbeck had a pocket full of quarters, which came in handy when he found a payphone a short distance from the blast site. He fended off other media members as he phoned in reports to KMBZ.

The firefighters who died were all fathers. They left behind a combined five wives, 13 children and 6 grandchildren. Their names: Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon, Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham. 

Seven years elapsed before five people from a nearby neighborhood were arrested for a small arson fire, perhaps a prank, that caused the disaster. All five were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. One died behind bars. The youngest, 17 at the time of the blast, Bryan Sheppard, was released after serving 20 years. The Supreme Court ruled mandatory life sentences were  unconstitutional for people so young.

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