Seeking answers in explosion at JJ’s restaurant

Updated: 2013-11-22T15:54:23Z

Mistakes were made before and during last week’s major natural gas leak in Kansas City, which is linked to an explosion that killed one person, injured others and leveled a popular Country Club Plaza area restaurant.

Crucial investigations into the blast near JJ’s restaurant should yield recommendations on how the Kansas City Fire Department and Missouri Gas Energy officials can better handle future natural gas leaks, all with the aim of protecting people and property.

The ongoing investigations by federal and state agencies need to answer at least three big questions:

Why did a contractor, digging in the area to install cable, hit the natural gas line? It’s crucial to learn whether the contractor followed proper procedures. For example, MGE safety literature urges anyone to dig by hand — “not with equipment” — within 24 inches of marked natural gas lines.

On Monday, Kansas City officials said the contractor did not have a permit for the job. Serious questions also exist about whether underground utility lines were appropriately marked before the trenching operation began. Both of these basic precautions are intended to protect the public. If they weren’t followed, they should have been.

• Why did the Kansas City Fire Department fail to evacuate the restaurant during a large natural gas leak even though firefighters arrived on the scene about an hour before the blast? As The Star reported last week, a federal agency six years ago criticized a New Jersey city’s fire department for not evacuating an apartment building during a natural gas leak that led to an explosion, killing three people. The agency recommended fire officials around the nation improve how they assessed the threats of leaks to the public.

• Why didn’t MGE employees follow the advice their own utility gives to customers? An MGE safety pamphlet sent out in residential bills this month says people in the area of a natural gas leak should “EVACUATE the premises or area immediately!”

The investigations also should determine whether MGE workers followed all emergency procedures set up to prevent fires and explosions in these situations. Utility officials have said their first worker on the scene of the natural gas leak talked to firefighters, who almost immediately departed the scene. MGE officials also said early indications were that the gas leaking in the area was not in the combustible range.

However, MGE’s own literature for customers is far less sanguine. This month’s safety brochure contains several warnings about gas leaks. Among them is one that seems particularly relevant given that last week’s leak occurred near a restaurant: “ANY FLAME OR SPARK COULD IGNITE LEAKING GAS AND CAUSE A FIRE OR EXPLOSION.”

Several early reactions to the incident have been defensive in nature. Mayor Sly James at one point said, “I’m not looking for someone to blame.” James seemed to fall into the camp of people who don’t want to criticize public safety officials who rush to the rescue of other citizens, including in this case. The department’s response to the JJ’s restaurant fire was admirable.

However, based on what’s known now, MGE officials and firefighters could have been far more aggressive than they were in evacuating people in the area, especially from the restaurant.

The Fire Department is scheduled in the next week or so to release its review of how the accident occurred.

However, investigations by the state and federal agencies must be counted on to give definitive answers on what mistakes were made in this incident and how they could be prevented in the future.

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