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Feb 20, 2013 10:58 AM

Winter Storm Could Hinder Crews Search Kansas City Rubble For Missing Woman

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - With a massive storm bearing down on the city, fire and rescue crews searched Wednesday for the lone person who has been missing since a large gas explosion destroyed a popular Kansas City restaurant.

The storm due to reach Kansas City by Wednesday night could dump as much as 10 inches of snow on the city, adding even greater urgency to the effort to find a female employee who was last seen before the Tuesday evening blast and inferno that turned JJ's restaurant into blackened ruins.

The explosion, which remained under investigation but was believed to be accidental, was felt for nearly a mile around the restaurant, shattering glass in nearby buildings and sending an ominous smoke plume above Country Club Plaza, a popular outdoor shopping and dining district.

At least 14 people were hurt, including seven that remain hospitalized Wednesday. Two of them were in critical condition Wednesday morning, while others were treated and released.

Crews using heavy equipment moved delicately to lift away the heavy debris left by the blast. One of two people first feared to be missing was later found receiving treatment at a hospital, and Mayor Sly James stressed that finding the missing restaurant worker would remain the primary focus of Wednesday's efforts.

"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."

Fire Chief Paul Berardi declined to release any information about the missing woman except that she worked at JJ's.

The blast happened at around 6 p.m. Tuesday, when the dinner crowd would have been filing into JJ's and the many other restaurants in the upscale Country Club Plaza shopping and dining district.

Witnesses reported that there was a strong smell of gas in the area before the blast, and Missouri Gas Energy, which supplies the area, said in a statement that "early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line."

Cadaver dogs searched the rubble Tuesday night but did not find anything, so heavy equipment was brought in at dawn to remove several feet of heavy debris, James said.

Berardi said firefighters were called about 5:15 p.m. Tuesday with a report that a construction worker had hit a gas line near the restaurant. Firefighters conferred with MGE workers and left the scene, and the explosion occurred about 45 minutes later. He said the cause of the gas leak and fire is still unknown.

"Once we confirm the victim is or isn't inside the building, that part of the investigation will continue," Berardi said.

JJ's had managed - until Tuesday night - to survive in the shadow a large construction project that has been under way across the narrow, one-way street for seven years. The work had complicated access to the street-corner restaurant, and a server needed hospital treatment in 2006 after she was struck by a rock sent flying by blasting for excavation of the construction site.

It was not known whether the contractor said by MGE to have been doing underground work was connected to the construction project.

Missouri utility regulators have launched an investigation the blast. The Missouri Public Service Commission said Wednesday that five staff have been dispatched to the site, and investigators will be looking at whether gas lines were properly marked before a contractor started doing underground work in the area. They will also look at whether MGE followed state rules in responding to a reported gas line leak before the explosion.

It could take up to six months before state regulators release a report on the incident. The Public Service Commission has the authority to make recommendations for changes and to seek fines in court.

Dr. John Verstraete, who works at Plaza Physicians Group next door to JJ's, told The Kansas City Star that several employees of the office smelled gas for several hours Tuesday afternoon. The smell grew stronger through the day, and a gas company employee entered the medical office just before 6 p.m. recommending that it be evacuated, he said.

The blast shattered windows in some businesses at a small strip mall nearby, and residents of some neighboring apartments reported minor interior damage. One side of a brick apartment building that shares the block with JJ's appeared to have been scorched.

Jim Ligon, a JJ's bartender, said he wasn't working Tuesday night but started getting texts and calls from co-workers minutes after the explosion. He said the incident happened during the peak of weekday happy hour, when there is typically anywhere from 15 to 45 people in the bar area as well as three to five tables of diners at the restaurant.

"JJ's has a small staff, a family feel," said Ligon, 45, of Kansas City, Mo. "You see the same 100 people all the time - a bar and restaurant for regulars. We're just really hoping we come out of here OK in terms of injuries."

The restaurant consistently received high ratings from contributors to Zagat's restaurant guides, both for its food and its wine list of hundreds of selections.

The shopping area was established in 1922 by J.C. Nichols. Based on the architecture of Seville, Spain, it includes retail, restaurants, apartments and offices.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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