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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Berardi’

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.

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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.”

james

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.

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