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Questions Linger About Gas Company's Evacuation At JJ's

Elana Gordon
The site of the former JJ's restaurant.

As several investigations continue into the explosion of JJ’s Restaurant, the role Missouri Gas Energy played in its response to the emergency is being questioned by experts and a witness who say the utility didn’t follow industry standards or its own advice.

Although its own safety instructions for gas leaks to its customers call for evacuating the premises immediately, MGE didn’t do that at the Feb. 19 incident. In fact, the MGE workers on the scene didn’t suggest that people leave the popular wine bar until 51 minutes after the initial 911 call.

A patron inside JJ’s that day, Mark Ebbitts, president of Shelton Travel Service, across the street from JJ’s at 48th and Belleview, said there was never an evacuation order given by an MGE representative.

“I will swear on 10 stacks of Bibles – not one, but 10 – that there was no evacuation order given when I was there,” Ebbitts said.

Ebbitts walked over to JJ’s about 5:15 p.m. to meet a friend. He could smell natural gas in the air, but he joked with Kansas City firefighters who were leaving the scene as he arrived. The firefighters left as MGE officials took charge. The smell was so strong that a JJ’s employee was holding a napkin to her nose and several customers left, Ebbitts said.

About 5:40 p.m., Ebbitts and his friend watched as an MGE worker came in to the restaurant with a long, goose-necked gas sensor.  

“The sensor goes off. It’s a loud noise. We all hear it,” he said. “At this point there’s only three of us there. And I turn to a friend of mine and say, ‘That doesn’t sound good.’”

After several more beeps from around the restaurant, the MGE worker silenced the tool, Ebbitts said, and approached JJ’s manager and the hostess. Ebbitts said he heard the worker say, 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,” Ebbitts said. “But there was 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.”

MGE refused to comment for this story, saying it is assisting investigators with the several probes now being done.

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR

Mark McDonald, president of the North American Gas Workers Association, is a gas industry veteran based in Boston who said MGE didn’t follow industry guidelines at the JJ’s scene. Although MGE said early on that its worker had advised people to leave, that is not the action needed, he said.

“In my experience, we didn’t advise people to leave. We ordered them out,” McDonald said. “Matter of fact, we get police and fire to assist us to get the people out of the building.” 

When the contractor hit the pipeline in the alley near JJ’s, it became a “hot leak,” McDonald said, a gas industry term for an obvious smell in the air in a congested urban area. People in the nearest building and surrounding areas must be evacuated, he said.

“That was a massive explosion and quite frankly they’re lucky people weren’t injured or killed in the other buildings,” he said. “When you have a congested area like that, basically you want to get people out.”

Workers can resist calling for an evacuation for several reasons, McDonald said. First, they can get numb to the danger because they respond to so many leaks that are ultimately fixed safely. Second, they don’t want to make official reports on the leak that could catch regulators or media attention, he said. 

Gas supervisors are also under a lot of pressure, he said, by certain “influences.”

“There’s influences by their boss and their boss’s boss, putting pressure (on them to) ‘Let’s not make a big deal out of this.'" 

State law on evacuations is murky, although a Class 1 leak requires “immediate corrective action which shall provide for public safety and protecting property.” It also allows the gas company to make the call on moving people, after it has consulted the local fire department.

“There are protocols, but they are not spelled out in law,” said Frank Gallagher, a gas industry watchdog who runs the website Natural Gas Watch. “It’s sort of at the company’s discretion.”

In a 2011 report on pipeline safety, the Missouri Public Service Commission, which is the state agency that oversees MGE, among other utilities, recommended that state law be strengthened on excavation damage prevention. But industry representatives and regulators couldn’t agree on those changes and although a bill has been introduced at the state legislature, it has stalled, said Natelle Dietrich, the commission’s director of utility operations. 

Still, the PSC would prefer that the policy on evacuations remain unchanged, she said.

“Within state law there are several things that a gas company can consider if there’s a report of a leak. It’s kind of a case by case thing,” she said. “I don’t know that specific standards would be the route to go.”

Safety standards within the gas pipeline industry are complicated because of the many state and federal laws that regulate them, said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who now has his own consulting firm in Washington, D.C. But the problem also lies with the industry, he said.   

“The gas industry itself unfortunately does not have a good record in being responsive to trying to make the necessary investments to build a safety culture in all of their organizations nationally,” Hall said.

Back at the Plaza, the blackened hole where JJ’s used to be is surrounded by chain-link fences, the site being picked over by investigators. At the building across the street that houses Ebbitts’ travel agency, windows are covered with plywood and workers in hardhats are surveying problems triggered by the blast. 

Ebbitts has surveillance tape that shows the blast went off at 6:02, just six minutes after he left the bar and was in his car driving home. He’s had nightmares since the blast, but he said he’s grateful to be alive.

“I kinda feel like there’s a guardian angel kind of looking over me,” he said. “I do count myself blessed.”

Meanwhile, the results from the many probes into the JJ’s explosion – from the city, state and MGE itself, will be released in the coming months.

You can see the transcript of the interview with Ebbitts about the JJ's explosion here.

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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