KANSAS CITY, Mo. - When the first alarms started to sound on Feb. 19, 2013, Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said it only took moments to realize this would be a different kind of fire.
As he turned off his neighborhood street in Brookside, Berardi immediately saw the plume of black smoke rising above the Country Club Plaza.
For Berardi, only at KCFD’s top post for about six weeks, the JJ’s restaurant explosion would literally prove to be a trial by fire.
“I don’t know if you’re ever going to be prepared for something like that,” Berardi told 41 Action News.
One year after the deadly blast, Berardi sat down with 41 Action News to talk about being on the front line of that massive fire, and the wall-to-wall media coverage that followed.
When he arrived at the JJ’s site that night, Berardi saw flames soaring 100 feet into the frigid night sky and victims being triaged at the scene. As the major incident persisted into the early-morning hours, questions swirled about how early people smelled a gas odor and whether evacuations had been ordered.
“You need to get accurate facts very quickly because people are going to be asking all kinds of questions, so that’s a lesson learned,” Berardi said.
41 Action News obtained a copy of the JJ’s Restaurant “After Action Review” (AAR), an internal report card of the department’s response to the explosion. The review occurred on April 29, 2013 among chief officers, firefighters and EMS personnel that played a major role in the incident.
What went well? According to the report, containing the flames and minimizing fire damage to other buildings, coordinating with other agencies, and getting victims quickly to hospital with available beds.
Suggested recommendations centered on crowded radio channels.
“The communication proved to be difficult because there was so much of it,” Berardi said.
The internal report also revealed another catastrophe avoided. Across the street from the burning restaurant, a large box truck containing expanding foam insulation sat at a construction site. Engineers of JE Dunn contacted the fire department to let them know about the possible hazard.
“They further advised it was flammable and could be explosive if it reached high enough temperatures,” the report said.
Aerial video shows the flames reaching just feet away from the box truck. At one point, a firefighter sprayed the truck bed with a hose. Eventually, crews moved the truck away from the danger zone.
Barely mentioned in the AAR was the fire department’s initial response to the gas leak. Pumper 19 was the first to respond that night, but left the area about 45 minutes before the explosion.
Firefighters said they received assurances from the gas company, MGE, the situation was under control. However, a new report from the Missouri Public Service Commission said the MGE first responder claimed to never speak with firefighters at the scene.
“The accuracy of our statements from day one has been consistent throughout this entire process,” Berardi said when questioned about the discrepancy in the MPSC report.
Regardless, Berardi quickly announced new policy changes in the wake of the explosion, weeks before the KCFD had even completed its internal review.
“As a public safety agency, that’s our main concern,” Berardi said. “So if there are things we can improve on to enhance the community safety, then that’s what we’re going to do and that’s why made the decision.”
The policy changes included responding to all reported leaks with equipment that can measure gas levels in the air, and staying on scene until firefighters are certain the situation poses no risk to the public.
A still edgy public saw those new policies in action at several area gas leaks in the weeks after the JJ’s explosion.
Berardi said the KCFD received an invite from the Western Fire Chiefs Association to present its internal review and lessons learned at a regional conference in Reno, Nev. last October.
“I’m comfortable with the way we respond to natural gas leaks, but we will always be looking for ways to improve,” Berardi said.