Posts Tagged ‘JJ’s’

Three things in particular have cropped up in the news in recent days that call out for closer inspection under the JimmyC microscope:

Charlie Wheeler’s financial dilemma

The amazing parallel between the Rutgers and Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese scandals

The Star’s telling story about why MGE didn’t shut off the gas valve to JJ’s


I’m proud to call Charlie Wheeler a good friend. I admired him and wrote a few stories about him during his years as mayor, from 1971-1979. Since retiring in 2005, I have worked as a volunteer in two of his last three political campaigns: county executive in 2006 and state treasurer in 2008. In the 2011 mayoral race, while working as a volunteer for Mike Burke, I helped arrange for Wheeler, who was also in the race, to throw his support to Burke shortly before the primary election. Burke, in one of the slickest political moves I’ve ever seen, also managed to reel in former mayors Dick Berkley and Kay Barnes. It wasn’t enough, of course, as Sly James, with his big personality and big head start, went on to beat Burke handily.

I learned several years ago that Charlie didn’t pay close attention to his finances, preferring instead to roam about town as an ambassador at large and dispenser of witty and insightful political observations.


Photo by JimmyCsays

As far as I can tell, while Charlie helped quite a few people get rich (or richer) while he was mayor, such as the late Frank Morgan and lawyer I.I. (Double I) Ozar, he never made a dime off politics, other than his salary. He’s similar, in that respect, to the late, great House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who was one of the two or three most powerful men in politics for years but died with about $25,000 to his name.

So, last week, out comes the story on page A4 of The Star, saying that Wheeler is facing the loss of his home on 53rd Street, just west of Loose Park. He has fallen way behind on his house payments, particularly taxes and homeowner’s insurance, and the house is scheduled to be sold on the courthouse steps this week.

He and his wife, Marjorie, who is an invalid, are supposedly moving into a duplex on Pennsylvania, which, I understand, might be owned by a friend.

My arm’s length observation on the situation is that regardless of how beloved a person is or how clean his reputation is, he’s still gotta write the checks for what he owes. My less-than-arm’s-length observation is that I sure hope this turns out OK for Charlie and Marjorie and that we don’t see a photo in The Star of their personal property stacked up on the curb of West 53rd Street.

Charlie, if you’re reading this, listen to me: One story is enough.


I trust that most of you are aware of the situation at Rutgers University, where the athletic director, Tim Pernetti, failed last year to fire basketball coach Mike Rice after he was made aware of videos that showed Rice physically and verbally abusing players during practices. The Rutgers president, Robert Barchi, subsequently went along with Pernetti’s decision to fine Rice $75,000 and suspend him for three games. The key thing here is that Barchi did not view the videos, or at least says he didn’t.


Robert Barchi

The shit hit the fan last week, however, after ESPN got ahold of the videos. The clips prompted an immediate outcry, and late last week Pernetti resigned and Barchi was clinging to his job. He was apparently spared because he had not actually seen the videos. (It should be noted that some faculty members are continuing to call for his head.)

I was in Philadelphia over the weekend — Rutgers is close by in New Jersey — and I read everything I could get my hands on about the scandal. In Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, a sports columnist named Bob Ford explained in a single sentence how Barchi managed to slip the noose:

“One does not become a university president without cultivating a close relationship with deniability.”

I had already been thinking how closely the Barchi-Pernetti situation mirrored the scandal surrounding Bishop Robert Finn last year.  After it surfaced that the Rev. Shawn Ratigan had surreptitiously taken pornographic photos of elementary school girls at the parish where he was pastor in Kansas City, North, Finn attempted to shift the blame to Vicar General Robert Murphy, saying that he himself never saw the photos and that he relied on Murphy’s assessment that the photos were not pornographic.

In other words, Finn gave himself deniability.

That didn’t fly with a Jackson County Circuit Court judge, of course, who found Finn guilty of a misdemeanor charge of failing to report child abuse. Now, Finn, who is on probation for two years, stands as the most senior Catholic official convicted in the church’s long-running child sex-abuse scandal.

Nevertheless, Finn has refused to resign, even after ruining the reputation of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese. Like Barchi, he’d rather carry on tattooed with shame than bow out gracefully and allow his organization to start afresh with new leadership.


The Star’s “Mr. Energy,” reporter Steve Everly, confirmed for readers on Sunday why MGE did not shut off the gas valve to JJ’s restaurant before the Feb. 19 explosion that killed server Megan Cramer and injured several others. The reason? It would have been costly and time consuming to restore service to customers in the area.

Restoring service involves utility employees going around from house to house, business to business, relighting pilot lights.

Everly wrote:

“Instead of shutting the valves when the smell of gas was in the air before the February blast that leveled JJ’s restaurant, Missouri Gas Energy waited for a backhoe to arrive from Raymore — more than 20 miles away — in a failed attempt to vent the leak.”

God help us…We’re on our own, aren’t we?

MGE employees tell a fire department crew that they have the situation “under control” — meaning they’re sitting on their hands waiting for a backhoe — and the firefighters get on the truck and drive off. All the while, several sitting ducks, mostly JJ’s employees, go about their business having no idea what’s in store for them.

Read Full Post »

As many of you probably suspect (or know), I don’t have a smartphone, a laptop or an iPad. Many times when I’m away, as a result, I don’t have regular access to the Internet and don’t get my full quotient of news.

So, what I sometimes do is have someone save all our home-delivered copies of The Star and The New York Times. Then, when I get back, I go through them at my leisure.

And so it went with last week’s trip to the Bay Area: A big stack of orange (The Star) and blue (NYT) bags were perched on the kitchen counter when we returned Sunday night, and I’ve spent parts of the last few days leafing through the papers. I focused on The Star because the national and international news are more readily available on the road.

As I read, I made note of several stories that caught my attention for one reason or another.

Here, then, are few JimmyC-tagged stories from editions of last week’s KC  Star:

Monday, March 18: “As red-light citations drop, speeders may be next target.”

The gist of this story, written by City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley was that the red-light-camera system installed at various intersections over the last several years has been so successful at reducing red-light running and T-bone crashes that city officials are thinking about deploying cameras aimed at catching people speeding.

The irony of this story is that in January 2012, The Star let itself get swept up in an effort by the Police Department to undercut the red-light-camera program. The Star ran — as an A-1, centerpiece — a story in which police officials essentially contended that the program was a failure because it had triggered an increase in rear-end crashes because of people supposedly jamming on the brakes to avoid running lights.

The story was way off base, and The Star was forced to clarify it in a follow-up a day or two after the first story…And what, you ask, could have motivated the Police Department to try to jettison the program? Simple, it takes department employees a lot of time to process the images and send out the thousands of citations the system generates. In other words, it’s a big inconvenience.

Now, the whole truth and nothing but has come out: The system has worked and people driving the streets of Kansas City are a lot safer than they were before the program began.

Tuesday, March 19: “Brookside Berbiglia”

This subhead appeared above a story that is more about the evolving tenor of the Brookside shops than it is about changes at the Berbiglia store a block west of 63rd and Main.

Here’s the scoop, as brought to us by The Star’s Joyce Smith: Joe Zwillenberg, owner of the Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill, has purchased the Berbiglia building. After renovation, Berbiglia will move to the south part of the building, and a Jimmy John’s will open on the north side of the building.

Do you remember about 10 years ago when Brookside residents raised a hue and cry when reports surfaced that a Starbucks might open on Brookside Boulevard just north of 63rd Street? The locals managed to beat back the threat, and a Roasterie coffee store moved in instead.

But then, a year or two ago, a Panera was erected on the corner of 63rd and Brookside Plaza, tripping the wire for the invasion of the franchises.

So now we get a nice, black and red Jimmy John’s, which produces the worst sandwiches in the nation, in my opinion. If you take away the shredded lettuce, all you have is a thin layer of salami (or whatever), a thin slice of cheese and a slice of mealy tomato — all wedged into a disemboweled sandwich roll.

Friday, March 22: “Two Jump Off Bond Bridge”

A man in his 50s and his 29-year-old daughter committed suicide by jumping off the Bond Bridge over the Missouri River. They were holding hands. In her other arm, the daughter cradled the family’s Chihuahua.

A Chihuahua, not the Chihuahua

A Chihuahua, not the Chihuahua

Now I understand how depression can push people into such a state that they want to take their own lives. But why in the world would someone want to take the family dog with them? Was the dog suffering from terminal cancer? I doubt it. I wish that dog could have swum to shore and lived out his life with a new, more appreciative owner.

Friday, March 22: “Man gave tainted gum to women, police say.”

Uhhh, tainted…How shall I say this in a primarily family friendly blog? OK, the guy jerked off and spread his cum over pieces of chewing gum and then distributed them — on a platter — to female co-workers at a Northland grocery.

Now there’s a novel way of exerting control over women, eh?

Oh, yeah, and, like me, he’s a blogger. He goes by the handle “BlueMidnighter.” Blue, as in dirty, filthy, nasty.

No further comment.

Saturday, March 23: “Suit filed in JJ’s explosion”

A Jackson County Circuit Court lawsuit filed on behalf of six JJ’s employees named five defendants:

Missouri Gas Energy, whose workers assured Kansas City fire fighters an hour before the explosion that they had the gas leak “under control”

Heartland Midwest, the contractor that was digging in the area and punctured the gas line

Time Warner Cable, which had contracted Heartland Midwest to install fiber optic cable to the new Plaza Vista project across the street from JJ’s

— Missouri One Call, a utility-sponsored service that anyone planning to dig in the vicinity of gas lines must call before proceeding

— USIC Locating Services, a company that does the marking for most of the utilities in the Kansas City area.

Obviously, the plaintiffs are casting a broad net, as City Councilman Jim Glover told me would happen a few weeks ago.

The surprise, at least to me, is that neither the city nor the Fire Department was named. What that tells me is that the plaintiffs’ attorney, Grant L. Davis, concluded that the Fire Department was not legally culpable, even though a fire fighting crew left the scene after MGE workers assured the crew that everything was A-OK.

I’ll bet city officials emitted a communal sigh of relief after they heard the news of the filing.

I don’t think that means, however, that the city is completely off the hook: I imagine that any of the named defendants could attempt to bring the city into the lawsuit as a defendant.

It promises to be an interesting legal case to follow, so stay awake, readers!

Read Full Post »

At last, nearly a month after the JJ’s explosion, the Kansas City Fire Department has acknowledged the obvious: That it is responsible for dealing with natural gas leaks.

Initially, after the Feb. 19 explosion that killed waitress Megan Kramer and injured 15 other people, Mayor Sly James infamously said in defense of the Fire Department: “(The) Fire Department doesn’t do gas.”

No more.

The Star’s Matt Campbell reported today that KCFD would change the way it responds to gas leaks.

Campbell wrote: “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.”

That’s the way it should have been all along. In 2010, Fire Engineering, a firefighting trade journal, had this to say on its website about natural gas leaks:

“Responding to gas leak emergencies often carries the stigma of a routine service-level call. The contrary is true, however, in that each of these incidents can easily escalate into a major emergency that could involve fire, explosion, collapse, evacuation, and any number of serious outcomes. Each of these responses must be treated as true emergencies and be handled with appropriate levels of risk management.”

Why, then, would a KCFD crew to arrive at the scene of a major gas leak, heed the advice of gas workers saying “we’ve got it under control,” and then get back on the truck and drive away?

That’s exactly what happened an hour before the JJ’s explosion. The crew left 13 minutes after they arrived and about 45 minutes before the explosion. .

It is unclear to me whether a battalion chief was at the scene, but from all I’ve heard and read it appears that the captain in charge of the truck made the call.

As one former KC firefighter told me, for whoever made the call, “It could be a career-altering move.”

Another big mistake the crew made was advising JJ’s staff to keep all ignition sources off. The crew told JJ’s employees to turn off all ignition sources but didn’t make sure it got done and didn’t help. Thus, the staff overlooked a couple of pilot lights — which I can see easily happening: Pilot lights are out of sight and somewhat out of mind, at least for the average person.

The pilot lights actually triggered the explosion, but it was what took place earlier — MGE saying it had the situation under control, the pumper truck driving away, and evacuation delayed until 10 to 15 minutes before the explosion — that truly caused the disaster.

By the way, in announcing the policy changes, Berardi said his comments would be his final statement on the matter.

This chief, who succeeded Smokey Dyer last year, has already had more than his 15 minutes of fame. He probably hasn’t had a solid bowel movement in weeks. He has not handled this debacle well, and the city and MGE — and perhaps others — are going to pay mightily for their mistakes.

A lawyer friend of mine said the litigation scenario would go like this: The plaintiffs will sue everybody — the contractor doing the digging, the fire department, MGE and maybe Time Warner Cable, which hired the contractor. Then, the defendants will file “cross claims,” each trying to cast the brunt of the blame on the other defendants.

Depositions and case filings will point toward how the blame should be apportioned. Then, the settling will begin.

Millions of dollars will change hands. In the end, though, Kansas City still will have lost a fine citizen, and area residents will forever think of the JJ’s site as the scene of a senseless tragedy.

Read Full Post »

It’s a beautiful, warm day in Kansas City, and, except for a slight crick in the neck, JimmyC feels good — mighty glad to be alive and writing.

And yet…Jimmy is puzzled and troubled by a number of things.

For example, he wants to know:

:: Why is the Kansas City Fire Department trying to shovel part of the blame for the JJ’s explosion onto…JJ’s?

According to a police and fire department report released yesterday, the area of origin the fire was listed as “cooking area, kitchen.”

Pardon me, but shouldn’t that have read: “Punctured gas line, alley”?

A story in The Star today goes on to say that “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 explosion, the restaurant manager told fire investigator Thomas Kievlan that employees put the candles out and turned the stove off but did not turn off the stove or water-heater pilot lights.


I get the impression that some fire fighter stuck his head in the restaurant door and said, “Hey, you’d better blow out the candles and turn the stove off” or maybe, “You’d better make sure all ignition sources are off.” Even if it was the latter, it’s easy to understand how workers would overlook pilot lights.

Fire fighters, if they had done their jobs properly, wouldn’t have overlooked them, though.

:: How will the city ever get control of the Police Department while an outgoing police board  commissioner is co-chairman of a committee charged with studying the issue of local control? 

A story posted today on The Star’s website quotes Mayor Sly James as saying: “We have assembled fair-minded, equally wise Kansas Citians to weigh this complex issue.”

The co-chairmen are former Mayor Kay Barnes (good) and former Police Board President Pat McInerney (bad). I’ve never heard a single police commissioner who has had anything good to say about local control. And why should they like the idea? They’re the people who have, nominally, controlled the department. (Actually, the police department bureaucracy is in charge.)

:: What prompted H&R Block to notify clients through Facebook about errors it made that will delay tax returns for possibly hundreds of thousands of people?

One client, Dustin Munson, told The Star: “I have been patiently waiting for my education credit refund, which I need to pay tuition bills. I was aghast to learn of the delay ON THE INTERNET and not from communication issued from your company…”

The question of WHY left Block’s director of communication, Gene King, pleading “no comment,” according to The Star.

Facebook? Well, all I can say is H&R Block is really up to date on its social media.

:: How will Kansas City Southern’s decision to not allow commuter trains to use its tracks affect County Executive Mike Sanders’ political ambitions?

Earlier, KC Southern had agreed to allow commuter trains to run on its tracks from Blue Springs to near Third and Grand in the River Market. But The Star reported today that KC Southern officials have changed their minds and are now insisting that Union Station be the final destination. That’s a problem, though, because Union Pacific has not agreed to have commuter trains running on its tracks leading to Union Station.

I smell politics…The Civic Council? Sly James? State reps or senators? Sanders would like to run for statewide office, but this development could pluck a big prospective accomplishment from his resume. Somebody, or somebodies, are out to get him.

:: Can anything good come from a party centered on a dance style “that involves shaking one’s rear,” as The Star put it?

Such a party was held Saturday night at the Tropical Palms Banquet Hall, 87th and Hillcrest. The Star reported that five people between 15 and 20 years old were wounded by shooting that broke out about 11:45 p.m…Of course, nobody saw anything.

The promoters didn’t have a dance-hall permit, and police said they had learned of only one unlicensed guard at the event, which was billed as “Everything/March Madness Twerk Fest.”

The Urban Dictionary lists “twerk” as a verb and gives the following definition: “to work one’s body, as in dancing, especially the rear end.”

Please, readers, for your welfare, stay away from twerk fests.

:: Why must Ding Dongs and Twinkies come back?

I like sweets as much as the next person, but I like them in the form of real food, like apple pie and chocolate cake.


Please feel free to hazard a response to any or all of these provocative questions.


Read Full Post »

Kansas City Mayor Sly James has been praised and criticized for his handling of the explosion at JJ’s.

There is no doubt that he was assertive, but was he more concerned with appearing to be in charge than making sure he was on the side of public health and welfare?

The problem with Sly’s initial response — we’re not going to play the blame game (paraphrasing), and the fire department “doesn’t do gas” — is that he didn’t think his comments all the way through.

Instead of a measured response — we will get to the bottom of this with all deliberate speed  (paraphrasing again) — he opted for an assertive, knee-jerk reaction that made him appear to be defending the fire department and beating back the press. (Oh, the press! Those turds in the punch bowl…always asking niggling questions and trying to make us public officials look like we’re picking our noses.)

…It didn’t help that Sly was wearing a fire-engine red, KCFD shirt at the news conference. Instead of trying on shirts before the news conference, he should have been sitting in a corner, or in his car, thinking about what he was going to say and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance.

But what’s done is done, and what was said has been consigned to Google.

So, what now?

A City Councilman I spoke with this week (he didn’t want to go on the record before the results of the fire department’s investigation has been released) noted that it’s easy for a public official to make a mistake and say something wrong in the midst of a crisis. The key, he said, is for public officials not to be afraid to reverse course once they analyze a crisis in hindsight and realize they erred.

If, after the fire department investigation is made public, James comes back and says that mistakes were made…and if he lays out a plan aimed at decreasing the chances of something like this happening again, then, yes, all is forgiven. The mayor will have reassured us that our safety is his top priority.

But if he sticks to “we don’t do gas,” he’s burying his head in the trench, and he will have used up a good measure of the trough of good will that every public official starts out with.

So far, Sly has taken only a baby step toward making amends with the public. In an interview with The Star’s Dave Helling last Friday, James said:

“If it turns out that something should be tweaked or done differently, that will certainly be something we will take a look at. But I’m not looking for somebody to blame… I’m not coming in with a preordained conclusion that somebody screwed up.”

Clearly, city procedures in the handling of gas leaks need to be more than “tweaked,” and blame must be assessed, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the mayor.

Unfortunately, Sly’s comments so far have put him in the position where he has to lead from behind in order to get back to the front.

The next time he talks about JJ’s, I want to see him playing mayor not fire fighter.

Read Full Post »

The two posts in which I have held the city’s and the gas company’s feet to the fire for the way they handled (or didn’t) the JJ’s disaster last week have generated many comments and lots of interest.

A key person who just weighed in today, with two lengthy comments on the first post, was Mark McDonald, president of the North American Gas Workers Association.

Some of you will recall it was McDonald who told The Star:

“It should have taken three minutes (to shut off gas to the area), and the building wouldn’t have exploded.”

With those few words, McDonald voiced the frustration that thousands of Kansas Citians were feeling about Missouri Gas Energy’s response to the situation, as well as the failure of the gas company and the Kansas City Fire Department to evacuate people from the area before the blast.

People reported that a strong smell of gas permeated the area for an hour before the explosion, which killed one person, waitress Megan Cramer, and injured 15.


Mark McDonald, checking for gas leaks in Boston

In today’s comments (which you can see in their entirety at the bottom of my Feb. 21 post), McDonald responded to another commenter’s call for him to elaborate on his original statement. He also responded to a commenter who accused me of playing “the blame game.”

Below, I have culled what I consider the most interesting and pertinent quotes from his two comments.

:: Regarding the commenter’s call for elaboration on shutting off gas valves…

I agree with your points about my statement being somewhat confusing to the lay person/public…I explained in length (to the reporter) and extensively about what should be available to shut down a gas leak of this magnitude…The reporters-editors decide what to write, and to what extent they decide makes enough sense to the average reader. Space in the newspaper is (at) a premium.

I will elaborate here…The gas could have been turned off at what’s known as a “critical valve” or primary valve. These are required to be in place and inspected annually under state and federal regulations to ensure they are accessible…to prevent such a disaster at JJ’s.

My understanding is the crew decided to dig a vent hole to help the gas vent into the air, instead of shutting down the critical valve. After the explosion, it appears the company had to dig out one valve at one end of the street and dig down to the main and crimp off the other end.

I hope that helps a bit. I also must point out that my comments are based on industry standards and requirements/regulations and what information I can confirm from the incident itself. I am not on-site or involved in the direct investigation, but I believe my comments were accurate in this case.

Keep in mind, when something like this happens, the media is full of questions without many answers. When asked, I try to educate the reporter on the technical basics of natural gas and what I believe are the possibilities, based on dozens of other gas explosions around the nation.

My overall goal is to ensure that information that is as accurate as possible gets out to the public — sooner than a year or so from now…when the PSC  (Missouri Public Service Commission) releases its final report of its findings.

Questions need to be asked and answered soon after the explosion. The public and the loved ones of those lost and injured deserve at least that.


:: Regarding another commenter’s assertion about “the blame game” and the location of shut-off valves…

If you read the state and federal regulations, it does state the location of such valves shall be positioned for a shutdown in case of an emergency, and it also states the “pressure” is one of the things to be considered when spacing these valves.

If it (the shut-off valve) is blocks away from the leak…it sounds like the company may not have placed the valve correctly in terms of safely shutting down a high pressure system.

The other factor here is (that) “main” valves used (to) be located at the end of each street (or every few blocks on longer streets)…and maintained. In my opinion, since de-regulation the gas companies have reduced their staffing by over 20 percent, while gas customers have grown by more than 20 percent.

The companies looking to cut back on costs could not maintain the main valves, nor were they directly required to by regulation. So, they were often paved over and not installed in newer installations.

Placing hundreds or even thousands of customers on one “critical/primary” valve is quite dangerous…The PSC (Public Service Commission) does take an extra step on the federal regulation requiring critical valves (to) be spaced so that a shutdown can be re-lit within eight hours.

Based on this incident and some comments here, it (the PSC) needs to go much further, especially on high-pressure gas, since it sounds like the company can’t control their own gas when it leaks.


Many thanks to Mark McDonald for elaborating on his understanding of the situation at JJ’s.

Everything he has said, as well as a strong feeling in my gut, has convinced me that the JJ’s explosion could have been avoided and that, at the very least, the area should have been evacuated.

If JJ’s would had exploded without any injuries or loss of life, most of us would have said, “That was a big fire.” Few people, except maybe Jimmy and David Frantze, would have questioned so strongly what responders were doing during the hour before that horrible explosion.

Read Full Post »

With the passage of several days and the surfacing of more information, the human error that led to the fatal explosion at JJ’s restaurant last week has become clear:

For more than an hour, as gas poured out of a broken line before the explosion, NO ONE WAS IN CHARGE.

I hate to say emergency responders were standing around with their hands in their pockets, but it’s pretty clear that nobody was doing much, for a long time, to protect citizens in the bar and in the immediate area. Evacuation didn’t start until a few minutes before the explosion, and apparently no one shut off the nearest gas valve.

(I would love to find out that was not the case, but in the absence of an assertion that gas was cut off, we’re left to assume it wasn’t.)

We all know by now that the Fire Department unwisely deferred to workers with Missouri Gas Energy.

Whoever the ranking fire fighter at the scene was…he failed to take charge.

Same for any of at least three MGE workers who arrived at the scene, separately, before the explosion. The fact that they arrived separately may well have contributed to a “who’s-in-charge-here” attitude.

The MGE workers told fire fighters that they had the situation under control. That’s a lot different, of course, than someone actually being in control.

The other main people on the scene — besides customers who smelled gas but didn’t go anywhere, partly because they weren’t told to — were the workers who pierced the gas line while digging in preparation to lay fiber optic cable.

None of them was in charge, of course. They work for a company that does work for Time Warner. They were trained in digging and running lines, probably not in organizing an evacuation and maybe not even in shutting off gas valves.

It was a most regrettable case, then, of a public agency and a private company being on the scene but neither knowing for sure which was in charge or what steps should be taken to protect the public.

In the absence of a clear process on what to do, the only hope that JJ’s patrons and workers had was that someone would step forward to fill the void. Unfortunately, no one picked up the hero’s mantle, and one person died and 15 were injured.

The Star’s Dave Helling reported yesterday that Kansas City’s generic emergency response plan calls for public safety officials — that is, police or fire fighters — to decide “if threats such as gas leaks warrant evacuations.”

That means the fire department should have taken the reins…Ah, but it’s not that simple.

The document goes on to say that “incident commanders” are in charge of “routine evacuations” —  which, clearly, this should have been.

Strictly speaking, however, there was no “incident commander,” partly because, for some crazy reason, the fire department routinely takes a back seat to the gas company in the case of leaks.

Helling also wrote about another document that should help the city deal with similar situations in the future. It’s called the National Incident Management System. It’s produced by the federal government, and the fire department follows its guidelines.

The telling line in the document, as far as the JJ’s explosion is concerned, says that at the scene of a dangerous situation or a disaster, the command function “must be clearly established from the beginning of incident operations.”

Makes all the sense in the world…So, let’s make sure that happens in the future.

Our very self-assured mayor — who sank from from mayor mode to lawyer mode that fateful day (and the next) — should step forward, soon, and hand down common-sense guidelines to govern dangerous situations where multiple agencies are involved.

kcfdlogoI’ll even give him the first two paragraphs of the new policy:

“When an incident arises where public health and safety is at risk — and where more than one agency or entity is involved — the Kansas City Fire Department or the Kansas City Police Department — whichever is appropriate — will be in charge of the incident and will take immediate steps to protect the public.

“The highest-ranking officer at the scene will assume command, and he or she will organize and direct the response of whatever agencies are involved in the incident.”

Never again should we Kansas Citians see our well-paid, well-trained fire fighters (or police officers) standing down to some gas energy guys running around in jeans, T-shirts and hard hats.

And those guys…let’s make sure they know where the shutoff valves are and how to switch them to the off position.

Read Full Post »

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?



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.”


Mayor Slay James and Fire Chief Paul Berardi

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.

Read Full Post »