JJ’s explosion origins traced to kitchen area

JJ’s staff snuffed out candles and turned off the stove as the restaurant filled with natural gas, but two pilot lights were still on when the popular Kansas City nightspot erupted in a fatal explosion, according to a new report.

The joint report from the Kansas City police and fire departments, as well as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, does not directly attribute the cause of the explosion to a pilot light, but the area of origin was listed as “cooking area, kitchen.” A fire department spokesman declined to draw conclusions or elaborate.

“Because the investigation is ongoing,” said Capt. James Garrett, “we are going to decline comment. As far as the specifics in the report, they are what they are.”

The Feb. 19 blast, which killed one and injured 15 others, occurred more than an hour after a contractor working in the area called 911 to report he’d hit a gas line near the restaurant.

According to the report released Wednesday, firefighters arriving on the scene before the explosion said they instructed JJ’s workers to extinguish flames on the candles, stove and water heater. The day after the blast, fire investigator Thomas Kievlan confirmed that when he interviewed a restaurant manager, whom the report doesn’t name.

“I asked him if they got all the flames out,” Kievlan wrote in the report, “and he said they only put the candles out and (turned) the stove off but did not turn out the pilot lights for the stove or hot water heater.”

JJ’s owners could not be reached for comment.

Efforts to fight the fire are recounted in detail, but beyond the mentions of the pilot lights, it is sketchy on the events leading up to the explosion.

A more comprehensive investigation by the Missouri Public Service Commission and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration is expected to provide more answers so that the public can “fully understand” the events that led to the explosion, Kievlan said in Wednesday’s report.

The broader report is not expected for several months.

Questions have been raised about the length of time it took for the fire department and Missouri Gas Energy to urge people in the area to evacuate after the gas leak was reported at 4:54 that afternoon. Witnesses reported the strong smell of gas about that time, but firefighters deferred a decision on evacuation to the gas company. The company’s workers did not instruct people to leave the restaurant until 5:50 p.m., MGE’s chief operating officer, Rob Hack, said the day after the blast.

The explosion came 14 minutes later, at 6:04.

The report does not touch on the evacuation procedure, nor does it address why it took MGE until 8 p.m. to shut off the gas in the area, some two hours after the explosion. Instead of using easily accessible valves, which are required by state law, the company instead dug holes to find a valve in one location and squeeze shut the plastic pipe in another.

Firefighters arriving on the scene that evening found very little of the building still standing and flames leaping up to 100 feet in the air, the report said. Before the blaze was put out, more than 50 fire vehicles were on the scene.

Server Megan Cramer died when the roof collapsed on her, the report said. Her body was found in the rubble the day after the fire.

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