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At least 16 hurt in blast and fire at Kansas City restaurant

February 19, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • An apparent natural-gas explosion caused a fire in an upscale shopping district that injured at least 16 people in Kansas City, Mo.
An apparent natural-gas explosion caused a fire in an upscale shopping… (Keith Myers / Kansas City…)

At least 16 people were hurt and a popular wine bar was destroyed by an apparent natural gas explosion and ensuing fire at an upscale shopping district in Kansas City, Mo., Tuesday evening.

Residents reported smelling natural gas and seeing utility crews in the area before the conflagration. A strong scent of gas hung in the air afterward.

“Early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line, but the investigation continues,” Missouri Gas Energy, a natural-gas provider, said in a statement.

The Kansas City Fire Department said the incident was under investigation. “It does seem to be an accident,” Fire Chief Paul Berardi said during a late-night news briefing.

JJ's Restaurant and wine bar, just off Country Club Plaza, had apparently been partially evacuated before the blast occurred about 6 p.m.

"This was happy hour at the restaurant. There were patrons in the restaurant," Berardi said.

No fatalities were reported, but officials brought in cadaver dogs to check the rubble. The Kansas City Star reported that one JJ's employee was missing.

The fire raged for two hours, with thick smoke visible for miles. Victims streamed to hospitals; at least four people were in critical condition.

Initially, police said a car had hit a gas main, but officials later discounted that explanation.

Witnesses described a chaotic scene. 

"I was sitting in my living room folding laundry, and felt in my chest -- and heard -- an explosion," said Jamie Lawless, who lives about two blocks from JJ's. "I started freaking out, and I was looking around, and then I saw other people walking outside. You could see giant black smoke billowing up from the plaza area, and nobody really knew what it was."

Sally McVey, who lives across the street from JJ's, said the fire "was growing exponentially, incredibly quickly. It was not like a fire I’ve seen before, where it takes a long time to spread.”

A crowd gathered to watch firefighters battle the blaze. At an apartment building on JJ's block, a woman on a top-floor balcony called down to onlookers.  "'Is my building on fire?' and everybody says, 'Yes, come down!' " McVey said. "She’s like, 'Oh my gosh,' and a lot of people come out of that building with their computers and dogs. She did too.”

JJ's owner, Jimmy Frantze, was out of town, said Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who used to be a fixture at the restaurant. The business, which boasted a selection of 1,800 bottles, had been on the site for 28 years.

“It was 28 years of a great restaurant, and then it has to end like this,” Frantze told the Kansas City Star while driving back from Oklahoma. “I want to make sure to check on my employees to make sure they are all right.”

Kansas City Police Department's bomb squad and officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were expected to investigate the accident after the search dogs finished looking for victims, Berardi said.

 matt.pearce@latimes.com

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