Official: 14 hurt in Kansas City gas blast, fire

Updated at 1:22 a.m. Eastern

KANSAS CITY, Mo. A gas explosion that sparked a massive, block-engulfing blaze in an upscale Kansas City shopping district injured 14 people, a city official said Tuesday evening, adding it is believed that an accident by a utility contractor may have caused the blast.

City Manager Troy Schulte said he did not know of anyone being reported missing and had not heard of any fatalities.

Cadaver dogs were searching the smoldering remains of a restaurant that burned to the ground following the explosion and massive blaze, a fire official said.

Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said late Tuesday that the search for possible victims could take hours and that he expected his crews to be at the scene through the night.

While officials have said they have no reports of fatalities, Berardi noted, "I would always fear there are fatalities in a scene like this."

Earlier Kansas City police had said the blast was caused by a car crashing into a gas main just after 6 p.m. Fire officials said later they were not aware of a crash being involved in the blast. Other witnesses noted street signs in the area indicated utility work was being done in the area, and a worker at a restaurant destroyed in the fire said the facility was being renovated at the time.

Schulte said it appeared an accident by a utility contractor had caused the blast, and a statement from utility Missouri Gas Energy late Tuesday reiterated that possibility, but Berardi and others cautioned that the cause was still being investigated.

"This investigation is ongoing," Berardi said. "We do have reports that there was an odor of gas earlier. But, again, this investigation needs to be concluded before we want to speculate on any of that."

Indeed, the smell of gas was very strong in the area hours after the blast. Berardi said the utility stopped the flow of gas about 8 p.m., and utility crews could be seen working in the area after the blast.

Police Sgt. Tony Sanders said the manager of JJ's restaurant was unable to account for three people, but it was unclear whether they were caught in the blaze or had left earlier.

CBS affiliate KCTV Kansas City reported of witnesses seeing people running out of the restaurant covered in blood.

"The first thing we need to be concerned about is the people that are injured," said Mayor Sly James, who also praised the work of first responders.

The University of Kansas Hospital was treating six people injured in the blast, said spokesman Bob Hallinan. He said one person was in critical condition, two were in serious condition and two others were expected to be released. He said all of those injuries were traumatic, such as broken bones, rather than burns or smoke inhalation. The final patient there was a burn victim who was transferred from Truman Medical Center, Hallinan said.

Dr. Marc Larsen, medical director of the emergency room at St. Luke's Hospital, which is near the scene of the fire, said they had treated eight people, six of whom were walk-ins with minor injuries. He said two males were in critical condition and would be kept overnight. He said one had extensive burns and another had facial trauma.

Jim Ligon, a bartender who has worked at JJ's restaurant for five years, wasn't working Tuesday night but said he 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."

Ligon said he was on his way Tuesday night to meet up with co-workers at another bar in town to talk about the incident.

Video showed dozens of firefighters and other emergency responders battling a massive blaze that appeared to have engulfed an entire block, with flames burning through the roofs. Black smoke swirled in the air and debris littered surrounding streets.

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.

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