KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A fatal explosion and fire at a Kansas City restaurant were caused by the ignition of natural gas vapors that had collected inside the restaurant, where pilot lights had been left on despite warnings from the fire crews investigating a nearby gas line rupture, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kansas City Fire Department.
The fire and explosion at JJ’s restaurant near the Country Club Plaza on Feb. 19 was caused by the “accidental ignition of natural gas vapors that accumulated inside” the restaurant, assistant city manager Patrick Klein said in a release that accompanied the investigation report. The report also said the fire began in the restaurant’s kitchen and listed “heat from other open flame or smoking materials” as the “heat source.”
The investigation was conducted jointly by the city of Kansas City, the fire department, the police department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The report does not assign blame for the fire and explosion, nor does it say the pilot lights were the cause of the blast that reduced the landmark restaurant to rubble, injured 16 people and killed Megan Cramer, a 46-year-old woman who worked at the restaurant.
The Missouri Public Service Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are conducting separate investigations into the cause of the natural gas line break. PSC spokesman Kevin Kelly said the PSC staff report is due June 27. The PSC staff will also be filing monthly interim reports until the final report is due, he said. OSHA’s Kansas City office did not immediately return a call seeking comment about its report.
Fire department spokesman James Garrett declined additional comment Wednesday on the department’s report.
The report said about an hour before the explosion was reported at 6:04 p.m., firefighters responded to a report of a gas leak near the restaurant and were told by construction workers that they punctured a gas line. The construction crew said Missouri Gas Energy had been notified, according to the report.
Fire crews then went into JJ’s “to warn management of the situation with the gas leak,” according to the report. They told the JJ’s employees to “put out all ignition sources in the kitchen and throughout the establishment.” The report said the restaurant staff “started to extinguish all candles on tables and the manager informed us that they were shutting down the kitchen and all ignition sources.”
A Missouri Gas Energy employee arrived and said “he had the situation under control,” the fire report said.
Fire investigator Thomas Kievlan, however, said in the report that when he contacted the restaurant’s manager the next day, the manager acknowledged that the fire department told him the night before to extinguish all candles and the pilot lights on the stove and hot water heater. But, Kievlan said, the manager told him that although they had put out the candles and turned off the stoves, they did not turn out the pilot lights for the stove or hot water heater.
The report also offers some detail about the extent of damage when firefighters were called back to the restaurant after the explosion.
When firefighters arrived they saw “a large body of fire and very little of the original fire building (JJ’s Restaurant) standing,” according to the report. Fire crews “found victims of the blast in front of the restaurant lying on the ground or in the process of self-extricating.”
Firefighters also were told by witnesses “of more victims inside the restaurant,” but the firefighters didn’t find any in a first search of the site, the report said.
“After knockdown and overhaul, companies, assisted by dogs, searched for a missing victim. Much time was spent looking for a victim without success, in deteriorating conditions. There were waist-deep holes full of water and frigid conditions, and crews had been operating for several hours,” the report said.
They stopped searching several hours later and resumed the next morning, when the victim was found near the bar area of the restaurant.
Cramer died after being “caught or trapped” when the roof collapsed at the restaurant, according to the report.
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