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Friday, January 28, 2011

Today in Kansas City History: 1978 - Fire Kills 20 People at The Historic Coates House Hotel

The Coates House Hotel in 1950
The section that burned the morning of January 28, 1978 is to the right side of this photo.
Courtesy of The Kansas City (MO) Public Library
While today's historic events are most remembered nation and worldwide as the 1986 explosion of the US space shuttle Challenger- it is also the 33rd anniversary of Kansas City MO's deadliest fire...

Photo taken by KCFD's Bill Keith
It was a frigid Saturday morning when around 4:10 a.m.- a lone call came into the KC-MO Fire Department's Fire Alarm Exchange and dispatch center at 22nd Street and Gillham.

The night desk clerk at Kansas City's historic Coates House hotel was calling and relaying the report of an unknown fire "on the 5th floor" on the south end of the U-shaped building at 1005 Broadway.

On a recording of the original dispatch tape from that fateful night- the clerk doesn't know what is burning and sounds rather vague and rather calm.

Within 25 seconds of the call- the first alarm to the Coates House goes out to Batallion chief 102- Pumpers 2- 9- 25 and Truck companies 1 and 6 to investigate that "unknown fire."

Pumper 2 and Truck 1's station is virtually across an alley and only a hundred feet or so south of the Coates House- yet when they arrive about a minute and a half later- there is no report of anything showing from the 5-story building.

The 2 companies had gone north on one-way Central from their station- then west on 10th Street- while the bitter prevailing wind was blowing the what little smoke was emanating from the growing fire to the southeast- away from their immediate view.

About 30 seconds after their arrival- Pumper 2's crew spots "smoke showing from the top floor" of the building- and Pumper 25 and Truck 6 is just arriving.

Several more minutes go by- when Chief 102 reports "the whole top floor of the (south) side of the building's involved" in flames- and requests a 2nd-alarm.

Three more pumpers- 8-10 and 17's and Truck 3 are sent- along with Deputy chief 101 and Battalion chief 106.

 From that point on- radio communications become frantic and jumbled: Pumper 2-A requests "immediate assistance on the south side" of the building- and a minute later- another truck company Truck 2 is dispatched to the scene.

In early 1978- the condition of KC-MO's fire equipment was inadequate and the manning of the apparatus was usually at the minimum of 3 on a pumper and 4 on truck or ladder companies.

With one man dropped-off at a hydrant- and the pumper's driver making hose connections to the truck and preparing for pumping operations- this left only the captain to attempt to grab a handline and go into a building to search for trapped occupants.

This directly contributed to a serious delay in getting any rescue crews- or hoselines- to the upper floors where fire was raging and people were trapped.

I was an off-duty firefighter at the time- but I had seen the smoke from this fire while filling up my car at a North Kansas City gas station and had just arrived on the scene- with the same cheap 35mm camera that I had during the Pleasant Hill MO Tornado on May 4 the year before.

This time- I had virtually an entire roll of film- and the indicated photos shown here are the first photographs (digital stills from slides that I hope to improve on) shot at the scene that have never before been published.

Trucks were arriving from nearly every direction- dropping large hose from hydrants as far as a block away or positioning their aerial ladders where they could to retrieve the hotel's occupants from top floors.

Firefighters in self-contained air packs were pulling hose and grabbing other equipment and rushing toward the building's entrance from the increasingly icy-covered streets and sidewalks.

In front of the building- the aerial ladder of Truck 6 had apparently froze only about 10 feet out of the bed of the 1950's-era truck- and the operator was unable to extend the much-needed aerial ladder any further.

I watched in horror as occupants of the hotel who were trapped in their rooms by the growing fire raging through the hallways outside had climbed onto window sills of the upper floors.


Firefighters below yelled to them to remain where they were- that help was soon coming.

But with increasing smoke and heat billowing out of the windows around them- people began jumping from the building.

I witnessed one jumper hit the partially-extended aerial ladder of Truck 6 and hit the pavement on the other side.

Two firefighters were trying to carry a 50-foot ground ladder that requires 4 people to raise- and I rushed in street clothes to help them and others in the still-futile firefight.

More than a dozen people would jump to their deaths that January morning.

The bodies of the deceased would be lined up on a sidewalk on Broadway just north of 11th Street- under the watchful but bewildered eyes of KC-MO police officer Wally Westwood whom I knew well from his visits to a downtown fire station I once had been assigned to just a year and a half prior to this night.

Just shy of 10 minutes after the lone call was received from the hotel's desk clerk- a 3rd-alarm is sounded- with Pumper companies 12- 18 and 19 along with Truck company 5 sent to the scene.

Amid the frantic jumble of radio traffic with firefighters literally screaming into their radios- Truck 7 is dispatched about 3 minutes later.

Numerous ambulances from then privately-operated companies were sent to the scene and mutual-aid fire companies from the Kansas City KS Fire Department were enroute to empty KC-MO stations around the downtown area.

At the 19 minute-mark- Pumper 1 from the Downtown Airport is still-alarmed to the fire and around 20 minutes after the initial alarm was sounded- a 4th-alarm is struck for the Coates House fire- sending Pumpers 4- 29 and 31.

By the time an hour elapsed- there would be at least 17 pumper companies and 7 truck companies- at least half of the KC-MO Fire department's total resources- at the scene.

Even that amount of equipment along with more than 75 firefighters wouldn't be enough to save 20 lives and almost half of the Coates House Hotel building itself.
By the first light of day nearly 3 hours later- there would be firefighters from as far away as Bonner Springs KS helping put out the fire- the debris from which would smolder more than 36 hours.
It would also take that long to recover the remains of those who didn't either jump or escape the fire.
Among them were two children who had gone to visit their father for the weekend- all three died in the fire- and the corpse of one man found straddling a burned-out window sill.

The Coates House as it stands today in the early 21st Century.
(Photo by scanderson44)

I know for a fact this fire weighed heavily on the souls of the firefighters who were at the Coates House that bitterly-cold January morning- especially those like myself who saw the horrors of people trying to escape the inferno early-on in the fire and our utter helplessness to save them.
But the true mourning for the Coates House Hotel fire of January 28, 1978 was reserved for the family and friends of those 20 souls who perished in the fire.
It is for those that I offer my most sincere condolences- and a prayer that a fire like this never again occurs in Kansas City.



the observer said...

Wow, just wow. Thank you for giving this account. I was still a callow youth in 1978--fixing to graduate from high school, just getting started in EMS by volunteering on the local ambulance squad.

Did the fire result in any changes to building codes or fire department procedures? I imagine that there was a lot of introspection after this loss of life.

Thanks again for sharing and the photos too.

The Observer

Groucho K. Marx said...

Your welcome my friend...

Oh yes- fire department ops have changed a GREAT deal since this fire.

Just on a "high-rise" response- they send 10 companies right-off.

The equipment is far and away better as well- there aren't ANY +20-year-old equipment that's first-line.

Smoke detectors- but NOT retro-fitting of sprinklers is required on these older buildings yet.

Be glad you haven't seen anything like that fire- this then 25-year-old went on a 2-day bender afterwards.


lawrence kenski said...

I lived in the restored Coates House in the 90s and was surprised how much from the original building remained. There was a swimming pool in the basement(not in use) and the first floor lobby interior stone work that were works of art. I am still haunted to think of the front page picture the KC Star ran of a dead burnt body in the window frame of one of the upper floors. I always thought it was wrong of the paper to print it and I seem to remember a bit of controversy over it. Good article my friend and thank you for your service to Kansas City.

Groucho K. Marx said...


Thanks for your perspective on what used to be one of Kansas City's 'crown jewels-' The Coates House Hotel.

I agree about the publishing of the photo of the dead body- bad taste!

Thank you for the kind words as well and bless you!

nicki smith said...

I remember this story I was 13 at the time, my boyfriend lived in the knew coates house from 93'-06' I always expected to see something weird but never did lol....but that's probably another story : ) nice story I wonder how many ppl that live there now have ever heard this story....I always thought they should have had old pictures of the coates hotel in the lobby but they didn't it was just an empty barren creepy lobby.

Anonymous said...

I was a litle girl about,13 when the fire happened. I had an uncle, Homer Mason who survived the fire. I saw the pistures in the paper and it was horrible about the men that was stuck on the ledges, freezing as they waited to get rescued.