Newly-released report on fatal Westport fire truck crash reveals contributing factors
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - New details are being revealed about what led to a crash in Westport in December of 2021 that killed three people.
KCTV5 has obtained the full 323-page investigative report and newly-released images from that night.
We know that the pumper was speeding and ran a red light when it crashed into a car, continuing on, knocking a pedestrian into a building. That building collapsed about a minute later.
The crash trapped a Honda CRV under the pumper, killing the driver, Jennifer San Nicolas and a passenger, Michael Elwood.
The pedestrian, Tami Knight, was also killed. She was waiting on the sidewalk while her boyfriend was unlocking his car.
But the police report reveals other facts, shedding light on how deficiencies within the Fire Department in three key areas were factors in the crash—staffing, training and communication.
“The events of that tragic night were set in motion before the events of that night occurred,” said Kevin Regan, the attorney for the pumper driver, Dominic Biscari. “You had almost a perfect storm happening.”
Staffing shortages — ”Whose turn was it to drive?”
Investigators learned Fire Station 19 did not have a permanent driver. The night of the crash, Richard Purtle the station’s interim driver, was serving as acting captain. Purtle was new to the firehouse and when the call to a fire on Benton Boulevard came in, he asked the crew, “Whose turn was it to drive.”
In interviews with police, other firefighters confirm they used a rotation system for driving. 21-year-old Dominic Biscari became the driver.
“I’m told that was his first night as an acting captain and Dominic’s first night as an acting driver on a hot route to a fire,” said Regan.
It wasn’t an isolated incident. Kansas City has more than 160 vacancies. The shortage means mandatory overtime and firefighters working WOC- working out of class. WOC means firefighters fill in as drivers and captains even if they have not currently earned that position.
The city recently alerted new recruits a training class was canceled in an email. The city abruptly reversed position and the class is back on.
Investigators looking into the crash clearly questioned the training for a fill-in driver, but get limited answers from then-Chief Donna Lake. The department reveals there’s a checklist and paperwork where Biscari scores an 82 percent. Police note, “No specifics on the hours of training was mentioned.”
Biscari’s attorney says that needs to change.
“We need mandatory, rigorous, regimented training for someone to complete successfully before they get behind the wheel of a fire truck,” said Regan.
Records showed the truck was speeding at the time of the crash and ran a red light. But that was not against the department’s policy.
Since the crash, the Fire Department has changed the policy to require firetrucks to stop at red lights.
A civil lawsuit revealed at least one other KCFD employee previously warned supervisors about Biscari’s driving. An email was sent entitled “Horrendous Driving.”
In it, a fellow KCFD employee wrote they were in fear for their life and warned Biscari’s driving was “dangerous to myself and to the citizens of Kansas City also.”
Biscari’s attorney says the young firefighter was never aware of a complaint.
Records showed there was a stand-down order given a minute before the crash, but the pumper kept going. Police records show no one inside the pumper heard the order. Pumper 19 was on a secured channel, and the order of the stand-down went out on another channel they couldn’t hear.
“You would think that when a 23-ton truck is on the road going fast on our city streets that the city would provide an efficient way of communicating. It does not,” said Regan.
There is one thing not even mentioned in the report that’s been a focus of KCTV5 investigations—the safety system Opticom.
Kansas City has it at some intersections. It changes traffic lights to clear a path. It’s been placed along routes for streetcars and busses.
Our previous reports revealed an Opticom transmitter was on pumper 19, but there’s no receiver at the Westport and Broadway intersection. The city is planning to install more Opticom receivers at some priority intersections, but Broadway and Westport is not on the list.
“Somebody’s asleep at the switch for the city,” said Regan. “If those things had been in place, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
Jennifer San Nicolas and Michael Elwood worked together at a Kansas City restaurant. San Nicolas is described as an animal lover and loyal friend. Friends say Michael was funny and sweet. He had studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and was planning a move to St. Louis to care for his family.
Tami Knight was a data analyst for the Kansas City Public School District. She had been out with her boyfriend that night. They were just returning to the car. Her boyfriend, Alexander Llera, told investigators that he heard the siren, but then the crash happened so fast that Tami and his car just “disappeared.” She was pushed into the building in the crash.
Tami’s mother called police to report her missing. The mother told police she tried to call Tami “multiple times and could not reach her and that she used an app and could see that “the cell phone was at Westport and Broadway.”
The families of the victims have filed a lawsuit against the city.
Dominic Biscari was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter. In February, Biscari took what is known as an Alford Plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged a judge or jury would likely find him guilty. He will not serve prison time but will get three years of supervised probation.
Kevin Regan says Biscari is hurting.
“He’s tremendously grief-stricken, remorseful. He prays and cries for those families every night,” said Regan.
The department has said it will “seek Dominic Biscari’s termination” as a result of the accident. But Biscari is fighting to keep his job.
“I know that there’s consequences for Dominic and others to face based on what happened. But what can we do to make sure it never happens again?” asked Regan.
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