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Plaza blast raises questions about timing of evacuation

Updated: 2013-02-21T06:16:44Z

By JUDY L. THOMAS, STEVE EVERLY, MIKE McGRAW

The Kansas City Star

Clear out. Immediately.

Experts say the first and best way to snuff the danger of pooling natural gas is to move people away.

But utility workers responding to a gas leak had been on the west edge of the Country Club Plaza for nearly an hour Tuesday evening before seeping fuel ignited in disaster at JJ’s restaurant. One person died and 15 others suffered varying injuries.

“Let’s keep the victims and the families of this tragedy … in our minds and hearts,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James said at a Wednesday news conference.

The tragedy quickly raised speculation about why the restaurant and surrounding businesses hadn’t been fully evacuated before the gas ignited in an explosion. Witnesses reported smelling a gag-inducing odor of gas in and around the restaurant more than an hour before the fire, which occurred about 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi said Wednesday that the Fire Department was called shortly before 5 p.m. and told that a construction contractor working in the area had struck a gas line. He said fire crews arrived quickly on the scene and conferred with representatives of Missouri Gas Energy, who said they had the situation under control.

“We left the situation in their hands,” Berardi said. “We have to leave that up to the experts at the scene.”

The explosion occurred about an hour later. Berardi said an investigation to sort out precisely what happened was just beginning.

Asked if the Fire Department deferred too much to MGE, a slightly irritated James responded: “Everybody wants to blame somebody. Everybody wants these details. But let me just assure you, that’s not going to happen today. … There is too much rubble to go through. There are 50,000 stories that are being told that all have to be tracked down, there are witnesses that have to be interviewed, some of which are in the hospital. So curb your appetite a little bit.”

Yet industry experts said that, from a distance, the response to the leaking fuel seemed slow. One safety expert said the fatal accident might have been avoided if MGE had moved more decisively.

“It should have taken three minutes (to shut off gas to the area), and the building wouldn’t have exploded,” said Mark McDonald, president of North American Gas Workers Association, a safety advocacy group based in Massachusetts.

State utility regulators dispatched five people to Kansas City for an investigation expected to take months.

“These are the things that keep you up at night,” said Kevin Gunn, chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission.

About 8 a.m. Tuesday, Heartland Midwest LLC gave notice that it planned to use a trenchless horizontal boring machine near JJ’s to install fiber-optic cable underground. Heartland was working for Time Warner Cable and notified Missouri One-Call, a nonprofit organization set up by utilities to help excavators and utilities dig in compliance with safety laws.

Such boring machines can be riskier than digging an open trench, especially when they are used near a natural-gas pipeline and surface markings for the location of the pipeline are inaccurate, according to industry officials.

“You’re basically drilling blind,” McDonald said. “You’re taking a lot of risk.”

Mike Pedelty, a spokesman for Time Warner, said that Heartland was installing the cable for an office building near JJ’s.

According to public records, Heartland notified state officials on Tuesday that the company planned to dig as much as seven feet deep near 4731 Belleview, close to JJ’s.

Heartland was established in 2000, according to its website, and began working for local municipalities and utility companies in early 2001, including AT&T and Time Warner. It has an office in Olathe.

Brad Russell, an attorney who represents Heartland, said Wednesday that the company is “cooperating with the ongoing investigation into the explosion.” He said the company reserved any further comment pending results of any investigation.

MGE chief operating officer Rob Hack said Heartland hit the two-inch line with its boring machine. Still, it’s unclear just when that happened.

“Our assumption, which remains under investigation, is that it occurred shortly before” Heartland called 911 at 4:54 p.m. reporting a gas leak, Hack said. Within a minute, firefighters alerted MGE. By 5:04 p.m., a Fire Department pumper truck arrived at the scene.

Twelve minutes later, MGE had an employee on the scene. The city said that a minute later the pumper truck was put “in service,” indicating that any pending crisis seemed to have passed.

By 5:31 p.m., a second MGE worker showed up. A minute later, a three-person MGE crew with a backhoe arrived.

Sometime between 5:47 and 5:55 p.m., according to the city’s account, another MGE crew member arrived and began asking JJ’s to evacuate.

Hack said he didn’t know why all of the restaurant workers didn’t leave. He also gave a slightly different account on when MGE told people to leave, saying that direction may have come between 5:15 and 5:50 p.m.

“The instructions were given they needed to get out of the restaurant,” Hack said.

That could be a critical issue in sorting out the response to the gas leak. Experts say that it’s crucial to evacuate when there’s a strong smell of gas in an area.

“Generally speaking, if you smell gas, what you’re actually smelling is the tracer material that’s added to it so that you can smell the gas,” said Jason Baird, associate professor of mining engineering and explosives engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla. “So if you smell the gas, that’s telling you there’s a problem. The thing to do would be try to leave the area and then to ascertain whether or not the authorities or gas company or whoever has control of that situation has been notified.

“If you were a first responder,” Baird said, “you’d try to get everybody out of the area so if there was an ignition you wouldn’t have people burned or hurt in the process.”

The mayor, however, said mass evacuation isn’t always the wisest action.

“It’s not necessarily best practice to evacuate entire city blocks of people,” James said. “You can do more harm than good. People get panicky.”

Some who smelled the strong gas odor late Tuesday afternoon were upset that evacuations weren’t ordered immediately.

“I’m really, really angry,” said Gayla Brockman, executive director of the Menorah Legacy Foundation at 4739 Belleview, a building that adjoins JJ’s just to the north. “I honestly don’t get it.”

Brockman said when she went to a parking garage that shares a wall with JJ’s around 4:50 p.m., the smell immediately stunned her. She got dizzy and nauseated. Others gave similar accounts.

Hack said the levels of gas were initially not high enough to cause an explosion. But the levels crept up and at least by 5:50 p.m., he said, a decision was made to evacuate.

McDonald of the gas workers’ safety group said a shutoff valve on the gas line to the restaurant could have been closed soon after utility workers arrived.

“There should have,” he said, “been an immediate shutdown.”

Frank Gallagher, of the website Natural Gas Watch, said gas leaks are a growing problem in the U.S., including a large number caused by construction.

He said the protocol in dealing with leaks varies between states. But Gallagher said gas utility employees usually are considered the experts on a scene — including deciding when gas levels are high enough to order evacuations and when to shut off the fuel.

The gas ultimately ignited, filling the Plaza skyline with flames and black billows of smoke, about 6 p.m. MGE’s Hack said the explosion came inside the restaurant after gas had accumulated from the broken line.

That was after MGE had asked people to leave the restaurant, according to city officials and Hack. But just how much time passed between the call for an evacuation and the explosion remained unclear.

The explosion set off a bloody chaos that shook the ground and left the Plaza awash in blinking emergency lights, the stink of smoke and a still-lingering odor of gas. Some 50 emergency vehicles came to the scene, including 13 ambulances and more than 100 firefighters.

It took until roughly 8 p.m. — some three hours after the first recorded alert about a problem — to shut off the leaking gas.

Hack said the fire interfered with utility crews’ efforts to shut off the gas.

“That’s under investigation,” Hack said.

McDonald, the industry safety advocate, said that even after the fire started, crews could have closed the main line farther away from the blast site. But that also would have shut the gas off to other customers, he said, and utilities often are reluctant to do that since it can be time-consuming and expensive to restart gas service.

On Wednesday morning, fire crews battled some remaining hot spots that rekindled at times. They found a body in the bar area in the southwest corner of the building.

Berardi, the fire chief, later in the day said the department had run down every lead for any missing persons and found no more victims. Authorities turn now to identifying the cause of the incident. That work will involve the Missouri Public Service Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The mayor cautioned about quick conclusions and assessing blame.

“Much of the speculation that’s out there is just flat-out wrong,” James said. “We have more questions than we have answers. And that’s probably going to be the way it is for a while.”

The Star’s Robert A. Cronkleton contributed to this report. To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to jthomas@kcstar.com. To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to severly@kcstar.com.

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