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One Tow Over the Line

Kansas City's towing industry is a wreck.


Joe Booth ignored his shoes, grabbed his pants and shirt, and hurried his wife, Norma, into the hallway. Flames were climbing outside his window that Friday morning at the Las Vegas MGM Grand, built in 1973 as the world's largest resort hotel. "They were small flames," Joe remembers. "I didn't think we were going to be gone long. I could come back for my shoes."

Joe Booth had trained himself to respond to emergencies. That's why he was in Las Vegas 20 years ago -- to attend a convention of tow-truck drivers. The year before, Booth had established Kansas City, Missouri, as the cradle of America's towing industry when he helped form the Towing and Recovery Association of America (TRAA) to improve and promote awareness of the profession. Booth prided himself on making split-second decisions at accident scenes because, ego notwithstanding, he was very good at it. People around Kansas City knew that whether they needed someone to dismantle a five-car pileup or just haul a clunker to the salvage yard, they should call Booth's Tow Service: 444-4496.

"Sometimes you don't know what to do," Booth says, looking back at his first moments of hesitation at the hotel. Not taking his shoes indicated that mighty Joe Booth was human: Glass shards sliced his feet like tiny razors after Booth and another man smashed a chair through a fifth-floor picture window, enabling the Booths to jump eight feet onto the casino's burning terrace roof, which was starting to collapse from the heat. They found an outside fire escape blocked with corrugated metal, but Booth fought to pry it open so the couple could scurry to safety. The inferno killed 87 people and injured more than 500.

Joe had been reluctant to go to Las Vegas because he sensed something bad might happen. "I don't feel right about this trip," he kept telling Norma. They discussed taking separate flights for the sake of their two youngest boys, just in case one of the planes went down. But Booth needed to make the trip because the Towing and Recovery Association of America needed him. The towing industry needed him. The convention was his job, his duty, his life. After the fire, Joe and Norma returned to Kansas City and received a hero's welcome at the airport.

"People were saying I was a hero for getting home, but I was glad to get home," Joe says. "I thanked the Lord for letting me come home. I'm a believer that when the good Lord wants to take you, he will. I don't stay out of cars and I don't stay out of this and I don't stay out of that. I don't do anything I don't want to do."

Eight months after the MGM Grand fire, Joe Booth faced another hotel disaster. On July 17, 1981, a four-story-high walkway collapsed during a tea dance at the Hyatt Regency. Booth's Tow Service was there to clear wreckage after one of the city's most horrible accidents, one that killed 114 people.

"We were called down to move some of those steel beams off those young people. You didn't say, 'How much am I going to get paid?' You sent your equipment in, and said, 'What do you need?' I sent all my trucks down there to work. For zero."Whether Joe Booth will be able to clear the wreckage of the Kansas City, Missouri, tow industry -- not for zero but for $20,000 -- is another question.

In the year 2000, the big business of towing cars in Kansas City could use some real assistance -- the place is the scene of avoidable collisions between city officials, politicians, lawyers, judges, police, tow operators, and motorists. For quite some time, Kansas City has been idling through this pathetic ride home, looking for an exit.

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