© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

JJ's Interview Transcript - Mark Ebbitts

Peggy Lowe: So what I'd like to talk to you about today, Mark, is just what we talked about the other day, which is: You had said you were in JJ's the night this all happened. Please tell me that story. 

Mark Ebbitts: So we left the office around 5:15, a friend and I did, as we normally would do, two or three days out of the week. And after work we go over for a glass of wine. When we walked out the door that evening, at around 5:15, we noticed a fire pumper truck outside. But as soon as we walked out the door, we smelled gas. And that gas smell wasn't overwhelming but it was in the air. As we're walking past the firemen, who are at this point kind of walking up the street near JJ's on 48th St, proceeding west, back to their pumper truck, it appears, we see that they have a...we make a joke and say, 'I've got cigarettes do you have matches? They say, yeah, we got lots of matches.' So...and it was tongue-in-cheek, obviously, and they laughed and I laughed and we continued to walk down the street to go in the entrance of JJ's. Once we were inside, we ordered a glass of wine. There were other people in there, maybe five or six other customers in there. 

Lowe: Because it opens at, like, 5, right?

Ebbitts: No, it's actually open all day, 11 o'clock in the morning. So it was open for lunch, but most people, most of our associates that we know, who come down there on a semi-regular basis, are there by 5-ish. So when we walk in we see the normal crowd that's in there, the happy hour crowd, if you want to call it that. And we say hello and we mention that there's a gas smell. We see Deidre, the hostess, someone you'd give you name to when you walked in, she had like a napkin or cloth against her face. Obviously the fumes were more upsetting to her than it was to the other patrons in the bar at that point. Um, so, we have Clay and Josh there, excuse me, Clay and Lindsay, who are waiting on us that evening. 

Lowe: You were actually at a table, you weren't sitting at the bar? 

Ebbitts: No, we were sitting at the bar. 

Lowe: At the bar, OK. 

Ebbitts: And as...it's kind of in a 90-degree angle place, so we were on one side and we saw some other people on the other side. So now it becomes maybe 5:30-ish and we see more MGE trucks coming down the street, one of which has a backhoe on it. It takes them a while to unload that and we see people with trucks and putting on jackets and things like that. But at no time, up until, now we're at 5:30, no one's come in the restaurant to tell us to leave.

Lowe: Either fire department or MGE.

Ebbitts: Either one. Now I don't know what happened before 5:15, in terms of fire department, but if the fire department had come into JJ's and told Matt the manager or told Deidre, the maitre d, then we wouldn't have...they would have closed it. They want to be safe, they had no death wish. They don't care about a few drinks, sales. They don't care. Safety is paramount for them. So I'm assuming there was no activity, but again I can't speak to the record on that. So we're continuing, we see more activity and things like that and then about 5:40 or so, maybe 5:45, right in that area, an MGE employee comes in the door, a younger guy, and he has what I later found was a Sensit, and a Sensit sniffs gas in the air. 

Lowe: And you described this to me earlier as like a goose-necked shaped...

Ebbitts: Correct. It's kinda like maybe a 14, 18-inch device with a yellow box and a goose-neck type and I would guess that would sense, smell gas in the air. Of course, as I've told you before, we have this rotten egg smell that we're smelling. But to me and to my friend and to other people, at that point, at 5:15 to 5:30-ish, it wasn't overwhelming. However, some patrons did leave around 5:30-ish because they said, 'This is no fun.' And they left. So again about 5:40, the guy with the sensor comes in and as he walks down the first step down into the restaurant, it's a two-step to get down into the restaurant side from the bar side, the sensor goes off. And it's a loud noise, we all hear it. At this point there are only three of us there. And I turn to a friend of mine and say, "Hmm, that doesn't sound good.' And then he says the same thing, he says, 'Yeah, I agree with that.' And then we look over at the other person on the other side, the third person in the bar, and we say the same thing, 'That doesn't sound very good, does it?' Now at this point it went off as soon as he walked down the first two steps, but now he's proceeding towards the window, very very close to where the gas leak is on the other side of the wall, and the sensor continues to sound. Then he walks around some more, towards the kitchen area -- doesn't go in the kitchen as I can tell -- because this thing is loud and we're kind of looking at him. He goes down into the kitchen area, it continues to sound, and then it looks like he silences it somehow. Don't know how he does that, but he silences it. And then he walks up to Matt, the manager, and Deidre, the hostess, and says, in so many words, 'We better just shut it down.' Meaning: you need to close. Again, speaking to those two people alone, not to the other three patrons, but there's no sense of urgency. And I want to express that to you very deeply. There was no sense of urgency in his voice to lock the door and get the heck out of Dodge. There was no sense of urgency in his voice at all. 

Lowe: He basically said, 'We just need to lock, like, close the place.' Not get people out, but just close it. 

Ebbitts: Yeah, just kinda shut it down, you know, whatever you normally do, in shut-down, go ahead and do that. So we have maybe a quarter of a glass of wine left, and we finish that off, it's not any rush to get out, just slowly get up and walk out the door and two to three minutes after this conversation with MGE and Matt...

Lowe: This is roughly, then, 5:45. 

Ebbitts: Correct. Uh huh. Now we're at 5:45 and we're kinda...we know the street's blocked off because there's no vehicular traffic coming down the street. However, we do see people get off the bus at 48th and Bellevue and walk east to their apartments. And we see people walking down the street 5:30-ish, 5:40-ish, when the bus drops them off. So we do see...the street's not closed to everybody. So the sidewalk's available for pedestrian traffic. Now it's 5:45 again and we are proceeding...we walk out the door and the last person at the bar, he finishes his, and as I look back -- I'm only ten steps outside -- but as I look up, he's getting up and walking, getting towards his car. We make a joke to him, before we actually leave the restaurant, saying, he had a remote starter on his car, he has a remote, and we say, 'Better not start that! Wait for us to get by!' You know, again, tongue-in-cheek. This is all tongue-in-cheek because there's been no sense of urgency from the MGE employee to get the heck out. I think that was the only MGE employee who ever came in during the time we were there.

Lowe: It just didn't seem serious. 

Ebbitts: It did not seem serious at all. And yes, the door of the restaurant was open and yes, we smelled gas, but we thought that was just floating in from outside. We had no sense of the rotten egg smell that you have when you smell gas. Kind of like when leaving your burner on your stove and then turning it back off. Yeah, you smell gas in the room, but you know you've turned it off and it just hasn't had a chance to clear. And that was our sense. 

Lowe: That things were going to be OK.

Ebbitts: Correct, things were going to be OK. And so...again, this particular person parked directly in front could not go forward because of all the equipment so he had to physically back his car out to 48th St. in order to leave the area. 

Lowe: But he got out. 

Ebbitts: He got out fine. 

Lowe: Man, he got out in just the nick of time. 

Ebbitts: Yeah, he did just get out. Our alarms went off at 6:02. 

Lowe: Your alarms here.

Ebbitts: Yeah, so that's when the blast occurred. 6:02:18. 

Lowe: Because the fire department is saying 6:04. 

Ebbitts: Correct. Kind of like. But I don't know if you've ever dialed 911 before, but it takes a while for those guys to answer. Some times you're put on hold, and maybe at the point of the explosion you had so many people say 'What the heck was that?' and then hitting 911. I know our alarm company, they called me first at 6:02:22 -- I've got a time record on this. They called me at 6:02:22. I answered the phone. The next call they made was to 911. They were on hold for six minutes. Now again that was 6:03 probably -- I've got a timeline on that but I think it was 6:03 -- but again, everyone's probably calling 911 at that point. So yes, they responded at 6:04, that's when they alarmed out. But for sure, for sure, 6:02:18 was when the blast occurred.

Lowe: So then...I'm sorry, it's 5:50 and you walk back over here.

Ebbitts: Yeah. We walked back. I part right in front. So again, it's about 5:50. you have to wait a minute to cross the light. But I did make a call to my house, my wife, and said 'I'm on my way' and that time date of that cell phone call was 5:54. Five five four. So I was just six minutes away from when it actually went off. 

Lowe: Do you consider yourself very lucky? 

Ebbitts: I kinda sorta do. I kinda feel like there's a guardian angel kinda looking over me. I've had...the first two nights I slept great. But Thursday and since then, I've had nightmares, sometimes I wake in the middle of the night shaken. Because it has affected me. It has -- it' not like you come by a traffic accident. It could have occurred just two or three minutes before and you could have been part of it. But this, you know, there was gas in the air, there's just things that were happening that I do count myself blessed. I do. And I'm a religious guy, but I just feel someone was watching over me that day. 

Lowe: So when I talked to you the other day, you said, there was no evacuation order. 

Ebbitts: I will swear on ten stacks of Bibles -- not one, but ten -- that there was no evacuation order given when I was there.

Lowe: It was just this casual, 'OK, let's wrap things up here.' 

Ebbitts: Correct. And that's why I think the staff were in the restaurant because they were counting cash, whatever you do to close down a bar. I don't know what you take to do that, but it takes time to do that. And because of that they were still inside the restaurant when the gas, it did ignite. 

Lowe: Now you're going to be sharing this information with these private investigators that are working for MGE. 

Ebbitts: Correct. And of course we have the video backup downstairs as well, where you can see the MGE trucks coming in. You can see the fire pumper truck that came at 5:15 -- excuse me, at 5:05 or so, and stayed there for about 10 minutes and left. When MGE trucks came on site. So you can see all this that happened. It's kind of tragic to relive all that. Because someone passed away. And they didn't need to do that. People were injured, and they didn't need to be injured. And of course MGE, to their benefit, doesn't have a death wish on their employees. They don't want to go out and see people injured. But to not have the sense to evacuate a restaurant with not only patrons, but staff in there as well, when an alarm sensor is going off. And then walking next door to the doctor's spa area and knock on the door and say 'Guys, it's time to go," they never did that. And that' where they're training or something fell through the cracks, for sure.

Lowe: So they only got people out of JJ's. They didn't do it out of that med spa next door?

Ebbitts: Well, as I understand it, and you'd have to talk to the doctor there, they did come over there about three minutes before and say, 'It's time to go. You have to leave.' And that's when they were coming out and they were barely 100 feet east of their building walking towards Roanoke when the blast went off. And as you may or may not know, one of their dogs -- they brought two dogs to work, they like labs -- one yellow lab..

Lowe: The fire department?

Ebbitts: No, the doctor's spa people. The doctor's spa people brought dogs, just pets, people do that. And so one of their dogs bolted from the sound and force of the explosion and their dog was never found. 

Lowe: I saw a story in the paper about that.

Ebbitts: Right, right. So again, at approximately 5:45 MGE's telling JJ's to casually shut it down, not: 'Close it, everybody out.' Didn't say that at all. And if they would have said that, we're not stupid people, I mean, I've got a master's degree, my other friend's a CPA. I mean, the other guy's a very learned attorney. I mean, we're not stupid. 

Lowe: We talked to another guy who said 'The smell was so overpowering.' He had actually parked somewhere and come down the alley.

Ebbitts: Right.

Lowe: And he said it felt like gas on steroids. So he actually, I think, went in but left because it was just so uncomfortable. 

Ebbitts: Right. And of course, walking down the alley, that's where the actual breach in the line occurred. And of course it would be stronger there. But we smelled it when we walked outside. But it didn't, as I said, it didn't seem overwhelming and again, when you pass by the firefighters, they don't say 'Go back, don't come in this area,' they don't say that. 

Lowe: So the firefighters were standing by? Because they said that that one truck was sent away. 

Ebbitts: No, they all went away. 

Lowe: They all went away.

Ebbitts: When MGE got on site, all the fire department staff walked away. 

Lowe: Which is another whole issue in itself. 

Ebbitts: That's another issue all by itself, too.

Lowe: But that's fascinating, too, to me.

Ebbitts: But you would think that the firefighters, being first responders...the professionals, MGE, the guys who do this every day of their lives, come on site and say, 'We got it. Everything's cool. Go away.' And maybe it was just that domino effect where one thing by itself wouldn't have caused it but you have two or three or four other things all stacked on top of one another and it just happened. You know, it just happened. 

Lowe: So now you've had some considerable damage in your own place here. I saw just saw construction workers with hard hats on walking in and out.

Ebbitts: Right. So we had the building shook a lot. Um, and I don't understand the physics of explosions but when explosion causes the air to leave it , it creates a vacuum and so instead of windows coming in to our office, being broken, they were actually sucked out and broke out of the exterior. We had very little glass inside the office as much as we had a lot outside. 

Lowe: Where were you when the explosion took place?

Ebbitts: I was probably...

Lowe: Were you standing outside?

Ebbitts: No, no, remember, I was in my car heading home. So I was maybe around 55th and Ward Parkway, Carriage Club area, when I got the call. I didn't feel it, I didn't see it. A friend of mine who works at Boulevard Brewery, he was at 47th and Belleview at the traffic light and was right there when it went off. He said he felt the concussion, felt the window glass of his car shake, saw a guy inside a building at 47th and Belleview looking outside and protecting himself. He wasn't hurt but it's just the shock and the sound of it all. So it was pretty amazing. We actually have on video also...the traffic light was red to southbound traffic at Belleview just nano seconds the blast went. The light went green and pretty much a nano second or so after that, the explosion happens. You see a white car's airbags go off as they're going through the intersection as the explosion occurs. It's a white SUV. You can see the bags pop out.

Lowe: You can see this on your surveillance tape.

Ebbitts: Correct, correct.

Lowe: Wow. Now are you going to share that surveillance tape? 

Ebbitts: As a matter of fact, we have. We...Our recorder records over itself every 24 hours. So the next morning, the day after the blast, we came in and we were curious to see what happened. So we go back and kind of rewind the tape to where the blast occurred and we have some people coming in from ATF, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, from KCPD Bomb Arson Squad, and KC Fire Department people. Luckily, because it was still a crime scene that morning, luckily they let us come in and just kind of secure our building. So we kind of looked at that and said 'This is valuable information that we have here.' And we called our alarm company to come down and make a copy of the data and maybe about 1 o'clock, between 12 and 1, we have a lot of news media who's curious about the video. And we basically said, at 1 o'clock we're shutting it down. Because we don't want to record over valuable information, so we basically turned off the recorder at that point. We did download some snippets, maybe a minute or two, that we've shared with all news media. And maybe you've seen that.

Lowe: I have. 

Ebbitts: So we shared that. So right now the video recorder is in possession of a person who is now contacted attorneys with MGE, insurance companies, ATF, and they're all trying to figure out what's the best way to copy the data and in a safe way that we don't, they don't lose any more of the data. Because I think it's not the blast itself. It's what lead up to it. So how many MGE trucks? When did they arrive? When did fire department leave? All that's captured on the video screens. We have nine cameras and four of which are outside. So a lot of that is captured.

Lowe: Wow. That's the record.

Ebbitts: So I think that's the value of things. So, yeah.

Lowe: That's the record.

Ebbitts: And it's interesting. I happened to get my gas bill yesterday and opened up the folder that says 'If you smell gas leave immediately.' Well, people say, 'Mark, why didn't you leave that day? When you smelled gas why did you go in?' Well, because there was no danger, no present sense of danger that anyone expressed upon us. And as I said, I'm a smart person, I don't put myself in danger, and because there were firefighters there, there were MGE people there, we just thought it was a gas leak in the street and like normal things, it would be fixed.

Lowe: And had there been gas leaks before? Because from what I understand, because this had been  a construction project for so long, have you guys had that in the past? 

Ebbitts: I don't recall. 

Lowe: Because some people said that.

Ebbitts: Right. Again, not that I can recall. This project, I'm very excited the building has been leased to Polsinelli Shughart. I'm very excited there's going to be a hotel. But there's been some tragedy at this project. There's been some real tragedy at this project. Both with Mr. Bernstein...initially when they were excavating they had the explosion that the one staffer at JJ's, happened to be out, again the same thing. 'Yeah, come on out we're going to be blowing up rock over here.' 'OK, we'll go out and hear it and see it and feel it.' And then something went wrong. The charge was misplaced and she was injured. 

Lowe: Shrapnel or something, in her face.

Ebbitts: Kind of her head, towards the forehead area. And so that happened. Then the building starts getting constructed and then Mr. Bernstein has financial issues and basically, they disagree, and then project sits idle, then it's torn down again and now it's being built back up and now we have this issue. I don't want to say it's sacred Indian burial ground, but something seems wrong over there in a sense. So hopefully this will be the last part of any serious issues that happen as associated with this project. Because that's why Time Warner is bringing in the cable fiber-optics for to bring in data lines in to that building. That's what they were doing that day. 

Lowe: It really was for that building?

Ebbitts: Yes, it was. 

Lowe: Very good. I don't think I have any other questions. Thank you so much for your time.

Ebbitts: Thank you. 

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.