WHAT OTHERS SAY: Key questions must be answered after deadly Kansas City blast

Thursday, February 21, 2013 | 12:43 p.m. CST

Missouri Gas Energy offers emphatic advice on its website for people who smell natural gas: “EVACUATE the premises or area immediately!”

Despite two news conferences Wednesday, Kansas City and MGE officials were not able to adequately explain why that advice was not promptly followed Tuesday night after a contractor punctured a gas line near a restaurant west of the Country Club Plaza.

The heavy smell of natural gas lingered in the air for about an hour until a large blast and fire destroyed the restaurant, killed at least one person, injured more than a dozen people and caused chaos for thousands of nearby residents.

At this point, one thing is clear: Ongoing investigations into the incident must pinpoint exactly what caused the explosion and what actions MGE and the Kansas City Fire Department took in the roughly 70 minutes after they were notified of the leak at 4:55 p.m.

Mayor Sly James perhaps put it best when he said, “We don’t know what’s true and what’s not.”

There’s a good explanation for that: It will take time to get statements from all of the people who were on the scene Tuesday. Some of them work for MGE, others for the Fire Department, still others for JJ’s, the restaurant flattened by the blast and fire. Restaurant patrons will need to be interviewed, as well as other nearby witnesses.

The question on many people’s minds centered on why someone in authority did not order an early evacuation of the restaurant, and perhaps nearby buildings, immediately after firefighters arrived (reportedly at 5:04 p.m.) or after the first MGE person got to the scene at 5:16 p.m.

MGE’s chief operating officer, Robert Hack, said the company’s process is not to immediately evacuate buildings — a statement seemingly at odds with what people are told on the company’s website and in mailings to customers. He also mentioned that readings are taken of how much gas was in the air. On Tuesday, at least one reading was close to but not in the danger area, he said.

According to Fire Chief Paul Berardi, firefighters did not stay on the scene very long after the MGE official arrived. In fact, they left a minute later, reportedly after being assured the situation was not dangerous. But it’s tough to know at this point how the MGE official could have made that quick call.

Hack said that at some point after another MGE official arrived on the scene, all of the people inside JJ’s were instructed to leave, although the timeline on that was still unclear Wednesday.

Fortunately, quick work by firefighters, ambulance crews and hospital workers helped control the emergency.

Firefighters largely stopped the blaze from spreading. Ambulances raced victims to several hospitals, which rapidly responded by calling in extra help. In a positive display of regional cooperation, emergency crews from Johnson County and Kansas City, Kan., also sent equipment to the scene.

Separate probes into the blast are under way by the Missouri Public Service Commission; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Kansas City’s fire and police departments.

Berardi pledged that a thorough investigation would yield a timeline of exactly what happened. James said several times that the Fire Department had “deferred” to the expertise of MGE officials. Still, he acknowledged he was not yet positive what had been said between fire and MGE officials before the explosion.

The public will need to know the chain of events, and the investigations should be geared to help answer that question. Figuring out what happened will provide Kansas City residents with better information on how they should react the next time a natural gas leak occurs. That crucial advice could save lives.

Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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