Authorities Pledge To Find Answers For Victims In Fatal Plaza Explosion

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KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) - Kansas City Mayor Sly James pledged on the behalf of victims to find what caused a deadly Plaza restaurant.

"We are going to find answers to know how this occurred and how we can help prevent it in the future," James said.

James, Fire Chief Paul Berardi and Missouri Gas Energy Chief Operating Officer Robert Hack spoke at a news conference Wednesday night.

The three men outlined a timeline of what facts have been determined.

Heartland Midwest was near JJ's Restaurant, which was located at 910 W. 48th St. The contractor was laying fiber optic cable for Time Warner Cable to a nearby hotel, which is under construction.

A member of Heartland's crew called 911 at 4:54 p.m. to report they had struck and ruptured a gas line. Missouri Gas and the Kansas City Fire Department were notified.

At 4:56 p.m., the call was moved to a higher priority level for responding fire crews. The fire crew was ordered from their station at 4:58 p.m. and arrived on scene at 5:04 p.m.

The first Missouri Gas crew arrived at 5:16 p.m. A minute later, the municipal fire crew returned to its station.

Because of the difficulty of the situation, additional MGE crews were summoned to the scene, including a crew with a backhoe. Work was begun to vent the area in which the leak had occurred.

MGE crews alerted employees in nearby buildings, including JJ's restaurant, that they should vacate the premises because of high levels of natural gas in the air. Patrons had left JJ's and employees were closing up. This was done by 5:45 to 5:50 p.m.

At 6:04 p.m., MGE had six people on the scene working.

The explosion occurred at 6:04 p.m. Tuesday. Three MGE employees were injured. Two were treated and released while the third person remains hospital, Hack said. All three were outside the restaurant on the sidewalk.

The blast quickly became a four-alarm fire that bought in more than 100 firefighters. Most were Kansas City, but other agencies provided assistance.

Thirteen ambulances were called to the scene.

The explosion tore through the area about 6 p.m. Tuesday. Hack said the MGE backhoe did not cause the explosion.

He said the evidence at the scene indicates the explosion was sparked inside JJ's.

"We don't know what caused the ignition," he said. "All evidence points to ignition inside JJ's."

While 911 was contacted just before 5 p.m., those who work and live near JJ's said they smelled gas well before then. But apparently no one called MGE or 911 to report the smell, according to Hack and city officials.

Heartland Midwest crews were first told about the strong odor about 1 p.m., said dentist John Verstraete. He said his employees and passers-by raised the issue of the strong odor of natural gas to the workers.

Verstraete told KCTV5's Sandra Olivas Tuesday night that the subcontractor workers had a lackadaisical attitude about concerns, and that one person was allowed to smoke in the area even though workers had warned about the strong odor of gas.

"We were really upset. They seemed to laugh it off," he said in an interview with KCTV5's Sandra Olivas. "The construction crews working outside. We were like, 'Hey, we smell gas.' ... They were just, 'Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.'"

He said his employees assumed that subcontractor would have it investigated and notify Missouri Gas Energy.

He said one of the construction workers even was smoking outside, which upset some of the doctor's office employees because of how strong the smell of gas was.

In the news conference, James took umbrage with the notion of a strong smell of gas in the area before the rupture occurred just before 5 p.m.

"People are reporting a lot of things, but we have absolutely no phone calls that they reported them to us, the fire department or MGE," he said. "And if people were reporting smells of gas, it makes sense that they report them to somebody who can do something about it. There are no calls that we are aware at this time that indicate they called and said to the fire department or to 911 that there's gas in my neighborhood and there is no call that we are aware of to MGE either."

He said he is dealing with facts and not rumor or innuendo.

Heartland Midwest has not issued a comment, instead referring questions to the company's attorney, Martin Pringle, who has not returned telephone calls seeking comment.

City Hall records do not show Heartland Midwest sought a permit for the work, but City Manager Troy Schulte said they may have received the permit through another company on the project. He said city officials are investigating the situation.

"They may have done everything right by the paperwork. We just need more time to investigate that issue," Schulte said.

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