A contractor's drilling error is suspected in a natural-gas pipeline explosion and fire that demolished a popular Kansas City, MO, restaurant this week, killing one person and injuring at least 15 others.
JJ's Restaurant erupted in a massive blaze stemming from the blast about 6 p.m. CT Tuesday (Feb. 19), leaving three to four feet of debris heaped in its place.
"When we got to the scene, we had a fully involved restaurant that had patrons—probably several patrons—inside at the time of the incident," said Fire Chief Paul Berardi.
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A natural-gas explosion and fire destroyed a popular restaurant Tuesday in Kansas City, MO, killing one person and injuring at least 15.
Open for over 27 years, the local fixture is located two blocks west of the Country Club Plaza.
Flames shot a few stories high into the air, and more than 100 firefighters responded, said Berardi.
One Dead, 15 Injured
Shortly before noon ET on Wednesday (Feb. 20), Kansas City Mayor Sly James said search crews had found a body in the rubble of the restaurant. He declined to say whether the victim was male or female.
Authorities had been combing through the debris looking for a woman who worked at JJ's and was reported missing after the explosion.
Searchers had used cadaver dogs for three hours overnight attempting to find the missing woman. Initially, two people had been reported missing, but one of them was located at an area hospital.
One area hospital said it had treated eight victims, including two men who were in critical condition. Another hospital reported that it had four patients with a fifth on the way.
In all, at least 15 people were reportedly injured in the blast. Six people remained hospitalized Wednesday, including three in critical condition, Berardi said.
Although only one person was believed to be missing, officials said they could not be 100 percent certain that everyone had been accounted for and that there were no other victims.
Crews Rush Ahead of Storm
Heavy equipment began arriving at the scene before dawn on Wednesday (Feb. 20), as crews rushed to remove debris before a winter storm moves into the area, potentially dumping inches of snow on the city.
Police spokeswoman Rhonda Flores said Tuesday that the explosion was originally thought to have been caused by a car striking a natural gas line, but heavy equipment may have triggered the blast, USA Today reported.
On Wednesday afternoon, Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) Chairman Kevin Gunn said that the gas leak was caused by a contractor drilling to install a fiber-optic cable.
The fire chief said that his department received a call about a gas leak about 50 minutes before the blast and had consulted with the utility company, Missouri Gas Energy, ultimately deciding to leave the issue in the utility's hands.
Witnesses said a huge fireball could be seen for miles. Nearby residences and apartments suffered damage, and a crew of at least two dozen workers inspected surrounding buildings to make sure no natural gas was trapped inside, authorities said.
Witnesses reported smelling gas up to an hour before the explosion occurred, which is said to have blown the roof right off of the 27-year-old restaurant.
"Everything shook, and you could feel it almost as much as you could hear it," one witness told ABC News. "It was by far the biggest explosion I've ever felt in my life."
Others reported that the explosion blew the roof right off JJ's.
A message was posted on the restaurant's 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."
Utility Releases Statement
Missouri Gas Energy released a statement on Tuesday night that said, "Early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural-gas line, but the investigation continues.
"Emergency responders along with Missouri Gas Energy personnel are on site. The area has been secured, and the flow of gas has been stopped. We do know that there have been injuries, however, at this time we do not have any details to provide."
PSC said that five staff members have been sent to the site of the explosion. State investigators will look at whether gas lines were properly marked and whether Missouri Gas Energy followed state rules in responding to the leak before the explosion.
A public affairs officer for the National Transportation Safety Board told PaintSquare News on Wednesday (Feb. 20) that the agency was monitoring the situation but currently did not have plans to launch an investigation.
Missouri Gas Energy is a natural-gas distribution company headquartered in Kansas City, MO, serving over a half-million customers in 155 western Missouri communities. The utility is a division of Southern Union Company, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer.