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At least 16 hurt in gas explosion at K.C. restaurant

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 11:01 a.m.CDT

(Continued from Page 2)

(MCT) — KANSAS CITY, Mo.—A huge natural gas explosion injured at least 16 people, destroyed a decades-old restaurant and rocked the iconic Country Club Plaza on Tuesday, just before the busy evening rush.

Area hospitals reported treating four people with critical injuries including burns and smoke inhalation. One patient was found and transported to a hospital about four hours after the event.

One person apparently had not been accounted for.

The area was chaotic after the blast, which occurred shortly after 6 p.m. at JJ’s just west of the Plaza

“It sounded like thunder, but it felt like an earthquake,” said Tracey Truitt, a lawyer at Polsinelli Shughart, who was working in a nearby building.

The force knocked out windows at least a half-block away and was felt nearly a mile away. Flames soared two-thirds higher than the building into the evening sky. Bricks and broken glass were strewn around, and nearby residents and office workers gathered outside and watched as the injured were carried away. The odor of gas remained in the air, causing apprehension about a possible additional explosion.

There were no initial reports of deaths, but officials brought cadaver dogs to the scene to explore the ruins.

Witnesses reported a strong odor of natural gas in the area, some for hours before the explosion occurred about 6 p.m., and some We don’t know the cause of the accident yet,” Fire Chief Paul Berardi said in the haze of smoke and smell of gas that still lingered near the scene some two hours after the explosion. “We believe it to be a natural gas explosion.”

Missouri Gas Energy issued a statement late Tuesday saying “early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line, but the investigation continues.”

The Missouri Public Service Commission will likely investigate because it has regulatory oversight.

The explosion rocked Natalie Rollins, who lives several blocks to the west, as she was getting ready to leave her apartment and head to the gym.

“The windows shook,” she said. Blinds fell from their attachments.

Soon she saw a massive, black cloud of smoke rising from the Plaza and massing over the rooftops to the west.

Sharon Fisher was in the House of Elan Med Spa next door to JJ’s when the explosion hit.

“I put my hands over my head, dropped to the floor, looked up and saw glass flying in pieces from the ceiling,” Fisher said. “The walls started buckling. I could see daylight when it stopped. We ran out of there as fast as we could.”

The corner restaurant was mostly flattened, save for a small part of the facade.

Witnesses said there were relatively few patrons inside JJ’s at the time of the explosion. The streets around the restaurant had been blocked off while MGE workers investigated the heavy smell of natural gas. The workers instructed everyone inside the restaurant and bar to evacuate.

Joe Whisler of Westwood had met friends there after work Tuesday.

“I’m OK, but I was just 15 minutes from dead,” he said later.

Four employees of JJ’s, who were hugging each other and crying after the blast, said they had started canceling reservations for the evening at 5 p.m. because the smell was so bad. When the gas company told them to leave, they said, they had to run. Some were in the alley when the explosion occurred.

JJ’s owner Jimmy Frantze was driving back to Kansas City from Oklahoma on Tuesday night.

“It was 28 years of a great restaurant, and then it has to end like this,” Frantze said. “I want to check on my employees. I want to make sure they are all right.”

Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte went to the Plaza in the aftermath.

“The Fire Department and first responders have done a remarkable job,”

James said. “I was just praying there weren’t people in JJ’s like there are so many times on a Tuesday evening at 5:30. ... At 5:30 on a Tuesday night that place would often be packed.”

About 100 firefighters were called to the four-alarm blaze, Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said. The gas was shut off and the fire was under control shortly after 8 p.m.

Mark Ebbitts, who works at nearby Shelton Travel Service, also stopped at JJ’s after work. He said the streets in the area were blocked off between 5 and 5:30 p.m. because of the smell and he saw Missouri Gas Energy workers inside JJ’s with gas detectors. Ebbitts said an alarm went off, but the gas workers did not appear to panic.

“They did not have a sense of urgency about them,” Ebbitts said. “They didn’t say we had to go.”

Other patrons of the restaurant said the Fire Department walked through about 5:20 p.m. and told the owners to turn off their ovens and grills and to open the doors to the outside. One of the bartenders turned off the patio heaters outside. One patron said there were seven to nine people in the restaurant when he left.

There may have been two explosions. A contractor working on the reported gas leak outside JJ’s said there was a small explosion outside the restaurant and some of the gas workers then ran inside to order everybody out.

Several employees of the Plaza Physicians Group, in an office across the alley from JJs, smelled gas around 1 p.m. and told a member of the street crews but they didn’t seem to pay any attention. The smell grew stronger through the day, to the point an employee blew out a candle in the office, said physician John Verstraete.

Just before 6 p.m., a member of the gas company showed up at the physicians’ office and said: “I recommend that you evacuate.”

Roughly two minutes later, everything exploded.

“We feel very blessed,” said Cisco Sherman, an office manager with the physicians group. He was huddled in a van with several co-workers, waiting to be allowed back in the building to get their belongings.

The impact was felt blocks away.

“I thought something had exploded in my house,” said Peggy Zilm, who lives about seven blocks from the fire, in the Westwood neighborhood.

“It’s horrible,” said Zilm, who said smoke was pouring over her street. “It just brings back too many memories of the Hyatt and other things.”

About a dozen people forced to evacuate their apartments took advantage of free lodging at the Q hotel in Westport. One of them, Daniel Welch, estimated 200 people may have been prevented from returning to their homes by yellow police tape.

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