Large fire raging at Country Club Plaza - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Plaza explosion leaves 1 dead, up to 16 hurt

KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -

Search crews recovered one body Wednesday following an explosion Tuesday night at the popular JJ's Restaurant on the Country Club Plaza.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi said cadaver dogs have searched the rubble, which is up to three feet deep, but have not hit on anything. Chopper5 showed authorities searching the rubble with flashlights.

"We do believe we have narrowed it down so that we're only looking for two," the fire chief said.

One of two people first feared to be missing was later found at a hospital. But the woman who worked at JJ's was still missing, and Kansas City Mayor Sly James had stressed that finding her remained the primary focus of Wednesday's efforts.

At least three people suffered severe burns and up to 16 were injured after the gas explosion about 6:15 p.m. Tuesday.

The cause of the explosion appears to be an accident, the fire chief said.

Missouri Gas Energy said in a statement that "early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line, but the investigation continues."

The contractor has not been identified. It took almost two hours after the explosion at 6 p.m. Tuesday to get the gas line cut off.

More than 100 firefighters responded to the scene and assisted in putting out the fire and searching buildings for victims.

James said he hopes that no one died in the explosion.

"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed," he said. "[The restaurant] doesn't look like anything recognizable at this point."

JJ's employees had asked patrons to leave due to the strong smell of gas. The employees were in the process of turning off everything when an explosion rocked the restaurant and the ceiling collapsed.

The explosion developed into a raging four-alarm fire that virtually destroyed the nearly 30-year-old restaurant and damaged nearby buildings. Dozens of ambulances rushed to the scene, and evacuations were ordered in the surrounding area.

A St. Luke's Medical Center physician said the hospital is treating two with extensive burns. Both likely will be transferred to the University of Kansas Hospital's burn unit once they are stabilized.

A spokeswoman for the KU Hospital said they expect to receive three patients with severe injuries to their burn unit. The third patient will come from Truman Medical Center.

Altogether, KU Hospital admitted eight patients. Of the five patients who came directly to the hospital, two suffered serious injures.

Six with serious or minor injuries were also treated at St. Luke's.

"This is a fluid situation," said Jill Jensen Chadwick, spokeswoman for KU Hospital.

Research Medical Center reported two with minor injuries.

"It is a very volatile time," James said. "But I think things are calming down."

Witnesses described seeing employees and patrons covered in blood running out of the popular restaurant.

The restaurant is at 910 W. 48th St. Witnesses said they smelled gas before the explosion and notified authorities as soon as 1:30 p.m.

Missouri Gas & Energy owns and operates the natural gas distribution line servicing the area. The utility company had a crew in the area working after receiving reports of a strong smell of gas about an hour before the explosion. About 30 minutes before the explosion, gas crews asked those in a nearby building to evacuate.

The status of the MGE employees and contractors was unclear Tuesday night.

The owner of the restaurant, Jimmy Frantze, told KCTV5's Stacey Cameron that he was en route from Oklahoma. His brother at the scene told him that a crew was digging for fiber optics to a new hotel on the Plaza when they struck a gas line.

Frantze said JJ's "literally exploded." He said four of his employees were critically injured and one employee had been unaccounted for. A wall in the kitchen collapsed, injuring several seriously.

The restaurant posted a message on their Facebook page that said, "Please keep our friends and families in your hearts and prayers. At this time we are still trying to assess the situation and make sure our coworkers and customers are safe."

The gas crews had blocked off areas, meaning fewer people were enjoying happy hour at JJ's than normal. James said he is hopeful that the casualty number will be relatively low compared to "what it could have been."

He said he is a frequent patron of JJ's and knows the owners. He praised the first responders and authorities for their assistance.

KCTV5's Dave Eckert was about a block from the restaurant about 30 minutes before the explosion. He described a strong smell of gas.

The city said Belleview Avenue and Roanoke Parkway between 47th Street and Ward Parkway would remain closed Wednesday morning.

"Residents are advised to please avoid driving in this area tomorrow," the city said in a statement.

James asked gawkers to avoid the area.

"Pray for the people on the Plaza, folks," he wrote on Twitter. "Everybody please stay calm and away from the area. Responders need room to work."

Residents who live near the restaurant said they smelled gas and reported it to the utility company about an hour before the explosion rocked their homes.

People nearby described hearing the massive explosion that was so powerful it shook doors and windows at nearby restaurants, homes and retail establishments.

Johnson County sent two ambulances and two fire trucks to the scene to assist.

Russ Welsh, chairman of the law firm of Polsinelli Shughart, issued a news release Tuesday night.

"Just like people all across Kansas City, our thoughts tonight are with the patrons and employees of J.J.'s who were injured, and the first responders who risked their lives to bring the fire under control. Our law firm headquarters, which is under construction next to J.J.'s, is secondary," the statement read.

The American Red Cross and Salvation Army are assisting victims. At least two hotels in the area offered free hotel stays Tuesday nights to victims.

Upload your photos and videos to pix.kctv5.com.

KCTV5's Bonyen Lee, Stacey Cameron, Jonathan Carter, Amy Anderson, Stephen Mayer, Alan Shope, Sandra Olivas and Chris Oberholtz contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.

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