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Missouri: Gas company's failures led to Plaza gas explosion

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JEFFERSON CITY, MO (KCTV) -

State investigators said Thursday that Missouri Gas Energy personnel wasted too much time before a gas explosion rocked a Country Club Plaza restaurant a year ago.

The 125-page report on the deadly natural gas explosion and massive fire that destroyed a well-known Kansas City restaurant was made public Thursday. It includes photographs and witness statements.

According to the long-awaited report from the Missouri Public Service Commission, "sufficient evidence exists that MGE violated Missouri Public Service Commission Rules regarding its actions to protect persons and property subsequent to the damage to the natural gas main by not conducting effective leak investigations as required."

PSC staff members says MGE did not follow its emergency plan.

"It's simply our belief . . . that they did not appropriately determine the extent of the hazard and did not then act appropriately to safeguard life and property," said Kevin Thompson, the commission's chief staff counsel. "It's our belief that they demonstrated a lack of appropriate urgency given the situation that they were faced with."

The PSC oversees pipeline safety and, in particular, MGE. This is the staff's findings. The commission itself will consider whether to go to court to ask a judge to force MGE to pay penalties.

Ten recommendations to MGE are being made as a result of the PSC's investigation.  Click here to read the full report.

MGE officials said they disagree with the findings and will vigorously challenge them.

"Upon learning an MGE gas line was damaged by a cable contractor, MGE promptly responded and followed well-established company and industry procedures. The moment the MGE responder arrived, his investigation began. He called for additional responders, investigated the source of the leak and developed a plan for containing it," according to the statement. "MGE responders conducted tests and urged the evacuation of several buildings in the impacted area, including JJ's. MGE responders urged JJ's to evacuate on three separate occasions. While many individuals left, our employees cannot force anyone to evacuate."

The events began to unfold on the afternoon of Feb. 19, 2013, when a construction crew struck a gas line about 4:45 p.m.

A 2" line was struck by a Heartland Midwest digging near JJ's Restaurant on the westside of the Plaza. The explosion last year killed waitress Megan Cramer and injured 15 people, including MGE and Heartland Midwest employees.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed over the explosion, which the Kansas City Fire Department found was ignited by a pilot light. The kitchen and water heater pilot lights were on at the time of the explosion. The state said electrical devices, pilot lights, telephones, smart phones and static electricity could have ignited the built up gas.

Heartland Midwest had filed with Missouri One to have the utility lines marked before employees began to dig to lay fiber lines to a nearby hotel under construction.Two lines were marked, but a third line, which was the gas line, was not marked. Heartland employees struck that line and the state said if the gas line had been properly marked then they likely would not have hit it.

The state said they have yet to determine who failed to properly mark the gas lines and are still working to determine that.

Once the gas line was hit and authorities notified, the Kansas City Fire Department responded. Fire crews quickly left the scene once MGE workers arrived at 5:16 p.m. The state found that MGE and fire officials likely did not speak before fire officials departed the scene.

Fire officials did tell JJ's employees to turn off possible ignition sources so a burner and grill were turned off and candles put out, but did not advise evacuation. Fire officials advised propping the door open to vent the gas from the building at 910 W. 48th St. Shortly after the door was propped open, an employee closed it because it was getting cold inside the restaurant.

One J.J.'s patron said he did not leave sooner because there was no sense of urgency from fire or gas officials, and he believed the leak would be fixed soon. Other patrons left because of the strong odor of natural gas.

The PSC says MGE waited 32 minutes before entering JJ's to check for natural gas. Employees were told to leave, but they have said MGE workers failed to stress the urgency of the situation and MGE did not make sure an evacuation occurred. Employees of another nearby business were also told to evacuate because of the gas levels inside.

The report goes on to say the gas company and all other individuals outside the damaged main should have moved a safe distance away when the high gas levels were detected.

PSC says the gas company violated public service rules.

"MGE did not conduct prompt and adequate leak investigations to determine if hazards existed and to determine the extent of the hazards in order to make the area safe and to protect life and property," the report says.

MGE officials said they will work with state officials to implement any changes needed, saying the safety of customers, employees and others are always their top priority.

"Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those impacted by this tragic event and their loved ones," the MGE statement says. "Consistent with our commitment to safety, MGE intends to evaluate the report and work closely with the PSC staff to address any recommendations that could further enhance safety in the future."

The release of the report reminded many of that fateful February afternoon.

Councilman Jim Glover, whose district includes the restaurant, said "no stone should be left unturned" when it comes to determining what happened. He said the most important thing is to find a way to ensure this never happens again.

J.J.'s server Kevin Fossland, who was off that fateful day, agreed.

"I hope something good comes of it as far as procedures or awareness," he said. "It's kind of crazy to think it was a normal work day,  and literally in a zap everyone's life changed a year later."

Cramer was a dear friend who he helped get hired at the restaurant. He misses talking to her and enjoying her dry sense of humor.

"She was a real intelligent person, and it's amazing to think about the conversations we had," he said.

KCTV5's Heather Staggers, Sandra Olivas and Jonathan Carter contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.

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