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Fire Department Releases Report On JJ's Explosion

Elana Gordon

JJ’s restaurant was leveled by an unintentional explosion that probably was ignited by pilot lights in the kitchen, thanks to the nick in the natural gas line outside the building, according to a report released by the Kansas City Fire Department on Wednesday.


Edited to clarify: Gary Wilson with the Overland Park Fire Department did not comment on the KCFD's response, or the ongoing JJ's investigation; rather he simply stated OPFD policy.

The department released a basic outline of the facts of the incident, but didn’t respond to the controversy around how it responded to the initial reports of the gas leak on February 19. The blast ultimately killed one person and injured 15 others.   

According to the timeline officials released the day after the explosion, firefighters responded to an emergency call that came in at 4:58 p.m., reporting the smell of natural gas. Firefighters went inside the restaurant and asked the staff to extinguish all ignition sources, according to the report issued Wednesday. 

Staff then blew out all the candles in the restaurant and told the fire department that they had shut down the kitchen, the report said. Missouri Gas Energy workers told the firefighters that equipment was on the way to fix the leak and told the fire crew it could leave.  

“We then cleared the scene, leaving it with MGE,” the report said. 

The pumper truck left at 5:17 p.m. JJ’s blew up at 6:02.

From the beginning, Kansas City Mayor Sly James has defended the department’s response, saying the city’s protocol calls for the fire department to defer to the utility on the scene. During a press conference at the Emergency Operations Center the morning after the blast, with Fire Chief Paul Berardi by his side, James refused to assign blame and uttered what became a much-reported line: “Fire does not do gas.”

“Fire department defers to the expertise of any utility that is there,” James said. Fire department doesn’t do electricity. Fire department doesn’t do water lines. Fire department doesn’t do gas.” 

Despite the department’s defense of what happened that night, the city’s emergency response plan, reworked in 2006, actually calls for public safety officials – and not private company employees – to decide on gas leak evacuations, even minor threats from explosions. 

In Overland Park, for instance, if firefighters are called out on a 911 report for any event, they take over the scene, said Gary Wilson, training chief at the Overland Park Fire Department.

“It’s kind of like a fire. We just don’t leave fire halfway burning because we decide it’s time to leave. We treat every incident the same,” Wilson said.

Jim Hall, the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the facts presented so far suggest that responders were not adequately prepared to respond to the JJ’s incident. Fire departments and the gas companies should regularly run disaster simulations, so all responders have a clear understanding that the fire department should make the crucial decisions that involve public safety, he said.

“With the fire department on the scene, that would be their decision to work and coordinate with the utility company in making a decision in regard to evacuation,” Hall said. “It just appears to me that the basic safety training was not in place.” 

Fire department spokesman James Garrett echoed the mayor when contacted this week, saying he refuses to find blame. He also pointed to the time of the blast, which happened well after the firefighters left. 

“So in 50 minutes to an hour, something went wrong. We know that,” he said. “As far as assessing how it went wrong, where it wrong, and all of the above, it’s just hard to tell.”

Missouri’s Public Safety Commission is still looking into the blast. But in a 2000 settlement with the state’s other gas company, Laclede Gas Co., the PSC ordered it to place more reliance on local police and fire for terminating ignition sources and for providing safety areas to keep the public from the scene. In the agreement reached after a residential home in Barnhart, Mo., exploded and burned, the PSC told Laclede that it had violated rules by not conducting emergency procedures in a timely manner.

A third investigation, by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is also expected in the coming months.

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.
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