Search crews at the site of a massive explosion that destroyed a popular Kansas City, Mo., restaurant recovered a body Wednesday, and the mayor said the rubble could be concealing other victims.
Mayor Sly James declined to say whether the body was that of a man or a woman, though authorities have been looking for a missing woman who worked at JJ’s restaurant and was seen there before the Tuesday evening blast. They previously said she was the only person still unaccounted for after the explosion and fire.
But James said at a news conference Wednesday that authorities can’t be “100 percent sure” they have accounted “for every single person that may have been at JJ’s when the explosion occurred.” The search started without a list of people who were in the building.
Crews using flashlights, cadaver dogs and heavy equipment were racing to finish the search ahead of a winter storm that was expected to bring heavy snow.
The explosion occurred after a construction crew apparently struck a natural gas line, touching off a blast that could be felt for nearly a mile. It shattered glass in nearby buildings and sent an ominous smoke plume above the outdoor shopping district.
Fifteen people were injured. Six were still hospitalized Wednesday, James said.
The restaurant was a beloved fixture on the city’s culinary scene for more than 27 years. Locals knew it as a prime after-work stop, though it won a broader reputation after receiving consistently high ratings from contributors to Zagat’s restaurant guides, both for its food and its long wine list.
The blast happened 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.
Fire Chief Paul Berardi said the precise cause of the gas leak is still under investigation.
Firefighters received a call about 5:15 p.m. that a construction worker had hit a gas line near the restaurant, and they conferred with employees of Missouri Gas Energy, which supplies the area.
It wasn’t clear Wednesday how hard firefighters or utility officials worked to evacuate the restaurant after gas was first noticed. Both James and Berardi said the fire department deferred to MGE since the utility would have more expertise in assessing the seriousness of the situation.
The fire department “does not do gas, MGE does gas,” James said. “Everybody wants to know what happened. Everybody wants to blame someone. Everybody wants to know details. That’s not going to happen today.”
A construction project had been going on across a narrow, one-way street from JJ’s for seven years. But it was not clear Wednesday whether that work was connected to the contractor that MGE said had been underground.
MGE planned to issue a statement later Wednesday.
The Missouri Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, launched an investigation into the blast, dispatching five employees to the site.
Commission Chairman Kevin Gunn said preliminary information indicates that gas pipelines had been marked as required.
Investigators will look at whether MGE followed state rules in responding to the gas leak reported beforehand. It could take up to six months before a final report is issued.
Dr. John Verstraete, who works at Plaza Physicians Group next door to JJ’s, told The Kansas City Star that several office employees smelled gas for several hours Tuesday afternoon. The smell grew stronger through the day, and a gas company employee entered the medical practice just before 6 p.m. and recommended evacuating.
William Borregard, 20, who lives with his sister and her fiancÎ˜ in the apartment building nearest to JJ’s, said he had noticed a strange smell for weeks that had worsened in recent days. On Tuesday, they called the apartment manager.
“We said it’s very pungent, and you should come out here and check it out,” he said. “He came over and rapped on the door and said there’s nothing to worry about. Stay in your apartment. That was five minutes prior to the explosion.”