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ATF to send investigators to Kansas City for Waldo Heights fire probe

waldo heights apt fire.jpg
Posted at 1:05 PM, Dec 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-29 19:34:25-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Federal investigators are expected to arrive in Kansas City on Wednesday to assist with the probe into the Waldo Heights Apartments fire.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has activated its national response team, according to the ATF’s Kansas City Field Division Public Information Officer John Ham, to help determine the cause of Monday night’s fire, which left two people hospitalized and displaced more than 30 families.

"We were contacted about this fire last night," Ham said. "We routinely help investigate fires with Kansas City Bomb and Arson and the Kansas City Fire Department."

The ATF team will work with the Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department’s Fire Marshal Division and the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department’s Bomb and Arson Unit to determine the point of origin and other details about the fire.

After the painstaking investigation is completed, the apartment complex likely will be gutted or razed.

"Fire investigations are a slow process, very methodological," Ham said, "because we only get one shot at this. Once we are done with this investigation, this building will likely be destroyed or at least completely stripped down to the bare bones. ... We document the scene. We do 3D imagery of the scene, so it can be recreated virtually later down the road, if that were necessary. Those are all tools that we can do better with the national response team."

According to KCPD, officers initially were dispatched to a reported disturbance at the apartment complex. As officers were en route, subsequent calls came in about a fire at the apartment complex, but there is no way of knowing if the different emergency calls are related at this point, according to Ham.

Ham said the national response team's involvement doesn't mean it the fire at the Waldo Heights Apartments was intentionally set, but the investigation could also lead to a wider investigation.

"We will start with every possible cause on the table and then as the evidence allows us to, we will start ruling things out," Ham said.

The size of the fire and the area of the structure that sustained damage can make it challenging to pinpoint the cause and origin of the fire.

The ATF has three national response teams, a group of highly skilled fire and explosive investigators equipped with a wide range of tools and technology most departments don’t have.

"They can respond within 24 hours to any part of the country for a large-scale fire or an explosive investigation," Ham said. "We are the only federal law enforcement agency that has arson jurisdiction. Over the past several decades, we've used that to build a very robust fire investigative program."

The team also includes electrical and structural engineers as well as forensic chemists.

"To be able to be able to have a one stop shop for a fire this size allows us to process the scene at a level that would be very difficult without that," Ham said.

One national response team is currently deployed to Nashville to investigate a Christmas morning bombing.

Local investigators requested federal assistance Monday. The team is expected to travel Tuesday to Kansas City and begin work on the fire investigation mid-week.

While the local ATF field division routinely assists with fire investigations in Kansas City, it's rare for the national response team to be called to town.

The last time the ATF deployed the national response team to Kansas City was five years ago when firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio were killed in the line of duty.

Thu Hong Nguyen was found guilty in July 2018 of two counts of second-degree murder as well as multiple counts of arson and assault for setting the fire at her Independence Avenue nail salon in October 2015, which led to the deaths of the KCFD firefighters.

KCPD told 41 Action News that it appreciates the partnership with ATF and their willingness to assist with the investigation.

Roads adjacent to the Waldo Heights Apartments, which are located in the 8100 block of Campbell Street just west of Troost Avenue in south KCMO, will remain closed for a few days as the investigation proceeds.

The ATF team will bring in heavy equipment cranes and other bulky equipment as part of the investigation, according to Ham.

Two people were hospitalized, including one who jumped to safety from a third-story balcony, after the fire broke out around 8 p.m. on Monday night.

The fire quickly spread to two of the building’s three floors, eventually breaking through the roof and sending smoke and flames into the night sky.

There was another fire at the apartment complex in October.

The local chapter of the American Red Cross is assisting displaced residents who don’t have anyone to stay with food, shelter and clothing.

Residents affected by the fire also can apply for assistance through the local Salvation Army chapter by filling out this request form online.

Reached by phone, the Waldo Heights Apartments property manager had no comment at this time.

For jurisdictions that utilize the Greater Kansas City Crime Stoppers Tips Hotline, anonymous tips can be made by calling 816-474-TIPS (8477), submitting the tip online or through the free mobile app at P3Tips.com.

Annual homicide details and data for the Kansas City area are available through the 41 Action News Homicide Tracker, which was launched in 2015. Read the 41 Action News Mug Shot Policy.