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‘I was just 15 minutes from dead,’ witness says

Updated: 2013-02-20T05:52:13Z

By STEVE KRASKE, ERIC ADLER and JUDY THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

Joe Whisler detected the odor even before he got to JJ’s Tuesday afternoon.

“I could smell gas from my car when I got to 48th and Belleview,” said Whisler of Westwood, who was meeting friends for a drink after work.

“It was overpowering.”

As he walked to the restaurant, Whisler said, he noticed a pipe in the ground at the alley on the east side of JJ’s that appeared to be leaking gas.

“I could hear a hiss of gas and smell it wafting up,” he said.

He met his friends inside and had a glass of wine. About 5:20 p.m., Whisler said, Kansas City firefighters entered the restaurant and told the owners to turn off their ovens and grills and open the doors to the outside. They did as they were told, Whisler said, with employees “covering their faces because of the odor.”

“I said to the lead fire guy, ‘Shouldn’t we evacuate here?’ ” Whisler said. “They told me no, that they had called the gas company. I saw three Missouri Gas Energy workers walking around outside.”

But the odor proved too strong for Whisler, and he left JJ’s about 5:30 p.m.

“The smell inside was so bad I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “It was unbearable.”

Whisler noticed the same pipe leaking gas in the alley when he left the restaurant. He said about 15 customers were in the bar and some were in the dining room when he left.

Whisler’s friend Matt Nichols, who is JJ’s general manager, was one of those still inside. Whisler worried Tuesday night about Nichols and other friends who remained in the restaurant.

“Most of the staff are my friends,” he said.

Whisler was still trying Tuesday night to get a grip on what had happened.

“I’m OK, but I was just 15 minutes from dead,” he said.

Gayla Brockman sensed something was wrong as she stood in an underground parking garage a few minutes before 5 p.m.

The smell of gas was overwhelming.

“It was so apparent,” said Brockman, executive director of the Menorah Legacy Foundation, whose building at 4739 Belleview Ave. abuts JJ’s from the north. “So bad. You have no idea. It is that smell, you know, times 10. That smell on steroids. I knew I was going to pass out.”

Brockman said she went back into her building, told her co-worker to evacuate and alerted Steve Rothstein, who owns the building as well as the apartment complex at 4732 and 4734 Belleview directly west and across the street from JJ’s.

As Brockman left the building, she saw workers who had been drilling in the street near the alley just steps from of JJ’s entrance.

“I said, ‘You hit a gas line, didn’t you?’” she recalled. “They said, ‘Yeah, we did.’

“I knew something bad was going to happen.”

Rothstein said that after Brockman alerted him, he also went to the parking garage, smelled gas and spoke to a worker.

“He said, ‘We had a break in the gas line,’ ” Rothstein said. “I asked, ‘Have you capped it?’ He said no. I said, ‘Are we safe?’ He said, ‘Yes, we’re safe.’ ”

Rothstein said he returned to his third-floor office. Shortly after that he heard and felt a tremendous explosion.

“I looked outside,” Rothstein said. “The whole roof of JJ’s had caved in.”

And the fire came soon after.

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