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Body found after JJ's explosion, fire in Kansas City

2:29 PM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
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By William M. Welch and Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY

Search crews on Wednesday found a body in the blackened rubble of a Kansas City, Mo., restaurant that was leveled by a gas line explosion that injured 15 people, Kansas City Mayor Sly James told reporters.

A female employee was missing after an earthquake-like blast Tuesday evening at J.J.'s restaurant triggered a massive fire at the Country Club Plaza shopping center.

James did not say whether the victim was a man or a woman. One other employee thought missing was found at St. Luke's Hospital receiving treatment.

Crews looking for possible victims were rushing to clear out heavy debris Wednesday before a major winter storm hits the region.

James said Wednesday morning that authorities can't be sure that every person who may have been at the restaurant had been accounted for.

He said 15 people were injured in the blast and fire. Six are still hospitalized, and nine have been released.

Heavy equipment began arriving before dawn as workers rushed to remove the debris and investigate the cause of the blast because of the expected arrival of the storm, James said. Cadaver dogs were also being used to scour the blackened debris.

"We have a major storm coming in this evening," James said. "We're going to work diligently to get in (to the blast site) to get underneath that weather."

Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said earlier that the search for victims could take hours.

"I would always fear there are fatalities in a scene like this," Berardi said. "When we got to the scene, we had a fully involved restaurant that had patrons, probably several patrons, inside at the time of incident."

Authorities were still investigating the cause of the blast, which appeared to have engulfed an entire block in the four-alarm blaze that burned for about 90 minutes.

Police spokeswoman Rhonda Flores said while initially the explosion was attributed to a motor vehicle striking a natural gas line, the blast may have been triggered by a piece of heavy equipment disrupting the gas main.

Berardi said investigators would be brought to the site only after the search for possible victims was completed.

Missouri Gas Energy, the utility that supplies the area, said in a statement that "early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line."

Berardi, however, cautioned that the cause was not yet known. "This investigation needs to be concluded before we want to speculate on any of that," he said.

"Some witnesses have said it might have been a construction worker on a backhoe doing construction in the area," Flores said. "We're still waiting for final word on that."

Berardi said officials don't suspect foul play at this time.

Residents told KCTV they had smelled gas about an hour before the explosion around 6 p.m. and alerted the local utility.

KMBC-TV, citing a man who said he visited the restaurant regularly, reported that firefighters and Missouri Gas Energy representatives had been checking for the source of a gas odor before the explosion. Customers were asked to leave, but several employees stayed behind.

Contributing: Steve Wieberg in Kansas City; Michael Winter in San Francisco; Alia E. Dastagir in McLean, Va.; Associated Press

USA TODAY

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