One year later, scars of explosion at JJ’s restaurant linger

04/23/2014 5:09 PM

04/23/2014 5:09 PM

Fumes from the gas leak outside JJ’s restaurant that night were so noxious that Gayla Brockman called her husband to let him know she was leaving the area. And should something awful happen later, assure him she was safe.

“I said to him, ‘Look, I’m heading north and I’m away from the building, but something really bad is going to happen at JJ’s,’ 

” Brockman said.

An hour later, her husband, Marshall Pred, walked out of a nearby gym and saw a tall plume of smoke towering over the west Country Club Plaza area.

As his wife predicted, JJ’s had blown up and the ensuing inferno roared on for two hours, leaving one person dead and 15 injured. A year later, Brockman is still haunted — and angry — because it could have been avoided.

For those who remained at the scene, the trauma of that night is felt more keenly, their lives transformed, some shattered.

Friends and relatives still grieve for 46-year-old waitress Megan Cramer, who died in the fire last Feb. 19. A bouquet of artificial flowers and a homemade card are still clipped to the chain-link fence standing where the restaurant walls once stood.

Most of Cramer’s former co-workers at JJ’s have found new jobs, but they feel a sense of loss, as if a family was torn apart that night.

“Not only do I miss all the people that I worked with,” said former JJ’s waiter Kevin Fossland, “but I also miss all the people who came into the restaurant.”

Fossland was off that night. But several who were working suffered burns, broken bones and other injuries. A few still struggle to cope with the physical and emotional scars, their attorneys say.

Same goes for employees of the underground drilling company that accidentally poked a hole in the gas line that afternoon in the alley outside JJ’s. Despite 20 surgical procedures, including skin grafts, to repair the burns that covered one-fifth of his body, Mike Tanner still has little use of one arm and goes to work only occasionally, according to his lawyer.

His co-worker Aaron Meek suffered a traumatic brain injury and hasn’t been able to work since, his lawyer says.

JJ’s co-owner Jimmy Frantze yearns to get back into the restaurant business after a year of spending much of his time dealing with insurance issues and cleaning up the site.

But he’s unsure whether he’ll be able to rebuild at the corner of 48th Street and Belleview Avenue, where the popular nightspot stood for nearly three decades.

“We keep looking at the original site,” Frantze said, “but we’ve got two burnt-out buildings next to me, and I can’t do a thing until something is done with those buildings.”

Next door, the now-empty, five-story Plazaview office building was burned so badly on one side that its owner considers it structurally unsound.

Likewise, the building across the alley from the restaurant, the House of Elan spa and doctors’ office, was damaged and remains unoccupied.

One year on, the last of four separate reports on the explosion has finally come out. Together the local, state and federal investigations point to several avoidable mistakes that were made on a number of fronts.

But ultimately it will be up to the courts to affix blame and apportion financial penalties.

To that end, two dozen attorneys gather every other week in a downtown office tower to take the depositions of firefighters, employees of JJ’s, the gas company and the drilling contractor, among others.

Ten lawsuits have been filed so far, and more are expected.

Plaintiffs include JJ’s, Cramer’s parents and some of the people who were injured that day or whose property was damaged.

The defendants vary among the lawsuits but include Missouri Gas Energy and an MGE employee who was on the scene that day; Heartland Midwest LLC, the drilling contractor working for fellow defendant Time Warner Cable; and the company that MGE and other utilities hired to mark the location of the gas line that was hit, USIC Locating Services Inc.

The first of those trials is not set to begin until the summer of 2015, and it could be years before all the litigation is settled or adjudicated.

Lives changed

Almost everyone agrees on the basic outline of what happened that day.

While tunneling beneath the alley outside JJ’s with underground horizontal boring equipment, Heartland’s crew struck a 2-inch gas line buried 3 feet deep.

A Heartland employee reported the leak to a 911 dispatcher shortly before 5 p.m. A Kansas City firetruck got there a few minutes later.

Fire Capt. Paul Jones spoke with a Heartland worker, according to a police report, then went into the restaurant, smelled gas and advised JJ’s workers to extinguish all flames, propping open the door as he left.

Firefighters did not order an evacuation.

Thirteen minutes after its arrival, Pumper 19 left the scene. Jones told police later that a Missouri Gas Energy employee had said he had it “under control,” although the first employee on the scene, Michael Palier, said he did not speak with firefighters.

Palier did call for help. An MGE crew with a backhoe got there a few minutes later and started to dig up the street to vent the gas and plug the leak.

But before the leak could be stopped, the restaurant blew up with some employees still inside. All escaped before fire engulfed the wreckage, except Cramer, who was trapped by debris.

Seven former JJ’s employees are seeking monetary damages in two separate lawsuits. Their attorneys did not make them available for comment.

Heartland employees Tanner, Meek and Matthew Couture are also suing. Tanner has spoken to the media on a couple of occasions about his injuries, but he does not remember much of what happened that day. Couture and Meek have declined to comment through their lawyers.

They and the other plaintiffs allege negligence by one or more parties, although they don’t all agree on who is to blame.

For instance, defendants and plaintiffs alike agree on how and why the gas line was ruptured. The Heartland crew relied on incomplete markings on the pavement made by USIC Locating Services Inc.

The Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regular, was unable to determine why the markings didn’t reflect the actual number of lines below ground.

There were two markings on the pavement, a red line for electrical and yellow for gas. But actually there were three lines.

When Heartland workers dug an exploratory “pothole” to eyeball the utility lines before crossing beneath them with their boring rig, they saw two lengths of black conduit at 25 inches deep and assumed they had found the gas line and an electrical line.

In fact, both were electrical wires for streetlights. The gas pipe was a foot deeper, which is exactly where the crew aimed its drill rig.

The Public Service Commission didn’t fault Heartland for hitting the pipe. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the company for not taking the extra step of digging a pothole to the depth of where the drilling was to occur.

Heartland counters that there is no such requirement in Missouri law.

Some of the lawsuits fault Heartland, while most say Missouri Gas Energy took too much time to evacuate the area and then did so with insufficient urgency. Time Warner Cable and USIC also are named in most lawsuits.

Stepping up safety

The people and companies being sued deny that they did anything inappropriate. In response to an inquiry from The Star, MGE issued this statement, in part:

“We have conducted an extensive review of the events of that day, and we know that we responded promptly when notified and followed appropriate safety procedures.”

USIC did not respond to requests for comment, but the Missouri Public Service Commission report says a company spokesman offered some theories on why there were two markings when there should have been three.

Among them, that the electric lines were so close together that they registered as one line on the firm’s locating equipment.

A lawyer for Heartland Midwest, however, was happy to talk.

“We’ve made some changes since this occurred,” attorney Brad Russell said.

While denying that his client was in any way responsible for what happened at JJ’s, Russell said the Olathe company has stepped up its commitment to safe digging practices in the year since the accident.

The company’s employees are getting more training and are subject to more field audits of their performance. OSHA faulted Heartland for not having training materials in Spanish as well as English, and now it does.

“Most of the changes involved better documentation of what was being done” prior to the blast, Russell said.

Others in the industry may also be paying closer attention to safety issues, said John Lansford, executive director of Missouri One Call, the agency that excavators are supposed to call before digging.

“We do several safety conferences each year,” Lansford said, “and we’re seeing an uptick in our attendance.”

He has heard that utilities in the Kansas City area are putting pressure on locators to be more careful, but The Star could not confirm that. MGE had no comment, and Kansas City Power Light didn’t shed much light.

“I would say that we are applying the same rigorous standards we always adhere to when we mark lines,” spokeswoman Rebecca Galati said.

Within a month of the explosion, the Kansas City Fire Department changed its protocols for handling gas leaks. No more do firefighters hand off responsibility for evacuations to the gas company.

The first responder is supposed to come equipped with gas monitoring equipment and remain on the scene until the risk is over.

The Fire Department did not furnish a spokesman to discuss how that new system is working despite repeated requests for comment.

One other update: Some may recall that during the commotion last Feb. 19, a yellow lab named Perseus got free from a worker as employees of House of Elan and an associated medical office exited the building.

The dog turned up two weeks later, nursing some cuts and 18 pounds skinnier.

Here’s the good news from John Verstraete, the doctor who owns the spa building and relocated his Plaza Physicians Group to offices in midtown.

Perseus is doing just dandy these days. He comes to work as he did before with his owner, who works at the doctors’ office.

Only problem is, Perseus more than made up for the weight loss. He’s starting to get chunky.

“We’re cutting back on the food,” Verstraete said.


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