Today, with the inevitable, official news that Missouri Gas Energy employees were dilatory in checking for unsafe gas levels inside JJ’s restaurant last Feb. 19, I feel more sorrow than anger.
It has been almost a year now since the explosion that leveled the restaurant, inured 15 people and killed 46-year-old Megan Cramer, a server, who along with a few other employees, had remained in the restaurant despite the smell of gas.
Megan is gone, the restaurant is gone, and driving down Belleview, past 48th Street, is no longer a cause for neck craning.
But what remains, primarily, are the thoughts and guilt that must hound the MGE employees who were, obviously, too cavalier about the threat that day. A 125-page report released Thursday by the staff of the Missouri Public Commission says that more than half an hour elapsed between the time MGE workers arrived on the scene and any of them went into JJ’s and an adjacent building to check the gas levels.
In a story posted on The Star’s website this afternoon, reporter Mike Hendricks said: “When the readings showed that gas levels inside the buildings were at unsafe levels, gas workers told occupants to evacuate…but they did not see to it that everyone complied with that order. Firefighters who might have assisted in an evacuation had by then left the scene.”
It has been clear since the day this tragedy occurred that MGE was not the only entity that screwed up. A company called Heartland Midwest LLC, a Time Warner subcontractor, shares in the blame because its workers pierced a two-inch gas line that serviced JJ’s. (Heartland apparently was involved in the burying of communication lines that would serve the new Polsinelli building, which was in the final stages of construction, across 48th Street.)
Then, there was our own KCFD. Firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after the break was reported, but they left after MGE workers assured the firefighters that they had the situation under control. The next day, Mayor Sly James tried to whitewash the fire department’s shoulder shrugging by saying that the fire department “doesn’t do gas.”
That was just balderdash, and everybody knew it. A few weeks later Fire Chief Paul Berardi acknowledged the obvious but tried to make it sound like taking on gas would be a new wrinkle for the fire department. A KC Star story said:
“Fire Chief Paul Berardi said that from now on, the initial dispatch on any call about a possible natural gas leak will include a battalion chief and a fire truck equipped…to monitor gas levels in the air. In addition firefighters will remain on the scene and continue to consult with gas utility experts to determine whether to evacuate an area or building. They will remain there until the risk has been resolved.”
But I come back to the MGE employees. They made another fatal error that day: they failed to shut off the gas at what is called a “critical valve.” (There is some dispute over the practicality of shutting off the valve — see The Star’s story — but logic tells me the first thought should have been to turn it off, no matter how many people it inconvenienced.)
If the gas had been shut off, there’d have been no explosion. Instead the workers tried to vent the gas into the air. That didn’t clear the problem.
But most of all, they failed to check the gas level in JJ’s right away and then make sure everybody left the premises.
They (gotta think the responsibility falls on more than on person) were the ones who ultimately dropped the ball. They are the ones carrying the stinging awareness that Megan Cramer should still be walking among us here in Kansas City.
I’m sure they continue to wake up every morning and ask themselves why, in an inherently dangerous business, they dropped their guard on the afternoon of Feb. 19, 2013.
I don’t know what else to say. It was a terrible, terrible day in Kansas City history — not because of the level of damage or the number of lives lost, but for the catastrophic inaction in the face of real danger.
P.S. Overall, Mike Hendricks did a good job of reporting this story for The Star, but he made a careless, thoughtless oversight: He did not mention Megan Cramer by name. He said, “The Feb. 19, 2013, explosion killed one person, injured 15 and destroyed the building.” I think that every time The Star writes about this case, the reporter or editor should include Cramer’s name and age and consider using her photo. After all, this was only a great tragedy because of the loss of her life. Had she been the 16th person injured, with no loss of life, this story would not be nearly as big as it is.
Kansas City can never forget Megan Cramer. May she rest in peace, and may God comfort her friends and family.