The Kansas City Star assigned a team of four outstanding reporters to the JJ’s explosion story Wednesday, and they established facts that pointed fingers of blame at two companies, a city agency and one big-city mayor.
Let’s be clear: These are maddening, infuriating fingers of blame.
Waitress Megan Cramer should not be dead; more than a dozen other people should not have been injured; JJ’s should still be intact.
Clearly, this was a disaster and tragedy that occurred because no one, NO ONE, made COMMON-SENSE decisions in the presence of a strong smell of gas…a smell that permeated the immediate area for MORE THAN AN HOUR before Tuesday’s explosion.
OK, so which individuals and entities shoulder the blame and why?
Investigative reporters Judy Thomas and Mike McGraw, energy reporter Steve Everly and City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley laid out the prosecution’s case in their story, and the four defendants seem to have little defense.
Let’s consider the defendants in the order that they screwed up…
1) Heartland Midwest LLC. Shall we just call them The Mad Diggers?
Using a trenchless, horizontal boring machine, the Time Warner subcontractor managed to bore into a two-inch gas line that serviced JJ’s.
The Star’s story said that before digging, Heartland officials called Missouri One-Call, a nonprofit organization set up by utilities to help excavators and utilities dig in compliance with safety laws. The story doesn’t say what, if anything, Missouri One-Call did in response to the Heartland call, so that part of the story remains up in the air. Missouri One-Call could end up sharing blame.
2) Missouri Gas Energy. It will be a long, long time before this company regains any credibility.
How could MGE workers not recognize this was an extremely dangerous situation?
Perhaps more important, WHY DIDN’T THEY SHUT OFF THE GAS LINE TO THE RESTAURANT???
Not to mention…WHY DIDN’T THEY ORDER THE AREA EVACUATED???
With damning impact, The Star interviewed the president of the North American Gas Workers Association, a safety advocacy group based in Massachusetts.
The official, Mark McDonald, told The Star, “It should have taken three minutes (to shut off gas to the area), and the building wouldn’t have exploded.” He said a shutoff valve to the restaurant could have been closed soon after utility workers arrived, which was nearly an hour before the explosion.
3) The Kansas City Fire Department. Asleep at the wheel.
A truck arrived on the scene at 5:04 p.m., about 10 minutes after Heartland reported the leak.
Fire Chief Paul Berardi said that firefighters conferred with MGE workers and that the workers assured the fire crew that 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.”
What? WHAT? Like the fire department doesn’t know anything about the hazards of natural gas?
And when, by the way, does the fire department defer to anyone? When there’s distinct danger in the air, the fire department has a responsibility to act.
On Tuesday, KCFD was the public’s strongest representative at the scene. The crew captain or battalion chief — whoever was in charge when that first truck arrived — could have, should have, said, “This doesn’t smell good to me…Let’s check this out a little further.”
4. Mayor Sly James. Like the fire department, he abdicated his duty to the public on Wednesday.
In a morning news conference, James deflected questions about who might be to blame, saying that simply that an investigation was underway.
“Now I understand everybody wants to know what happened, wants to blame somebody,” James said. “Everybody wants to know these details, but let me just assure you that’s not going to happen today.”
That statement was OK, as far as it went. But the situation begged for much, much more.
What he should have added, emphatically, is something like this: “I assure you we are going to get to the bottom of this. This tragedy has raised plenty of questions, and I am going to make sure that every question is answered. We will let the chips fall where they may.”
Remember when the skywalks at the Hyatt collapsed, killing 113 people?
The day after it occurred (maybe the second day), Mayor Richard Berkley stood up to Don Hall, Hallmark and other deep-pocketed, vested interests and called for a federal investigation. Then-Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton got involved and a full-scale investigation got underway almost immediately.
Berkley didn’t say, “Let me assure you that (the search for answers) is not going to happen today.”
James’s attitude is going to have to change, and quickly. The public will demand it. What James didn’t seem to take into account yesterday was the anger that was, and is, coming to a boil.
The Star reporters showed us exactly what that looks like when they quoted the executive director of a foundation that has offices immediately north of JJ’s.
“I’m really, really angry,” said Gayla Brockman. “I honestly don’t get it.”
She smelled the gas slightly more than an hour before the explosion, and it was so strong that it nauseated her.
People with Heartland Midwest, MGE and the fire department smelled gas, too…Why didn’t any of them act quickly, in the interests of public safety?
And why wasn’t Mayor James demanding answers the day after a tragedy that will not soon be forgotten?
I want to know. And my fellow Kansas Citians want to know.
And there must be accountability.