20 February 2013, Kansas – At least 14 people were injured in a fire triggered by a natural gas explosion Tuesday in an upscale business and shopping district of Kansas City, Mo., authorities told NBC News.
Kansas City police said the blast occurred about 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) outside JJ’s Restaurant in Country Club Plaza. Enormous flames tore into the night sky outside the restaurant, which was at the center of the fire and was destroyed, NBC station KSHB of Kansas City reported.
Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said in a news conference at 11 p.m. ET that the cause of the explosion was still under investigation.
“It doesn’t appear to be foul play at this time,” Berardi added.
A statement released by the Missouri Gas Energy company said early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line, but the investigation continues.
At the news conference, Berardi said MGE had turned off the gas at 8 p.m. local time (9 p.m. ET) and there was no danger of another explosion occurring in the area. The chief acknowledged the department had received earlier reports of gas odor in the area.
Authorities had told NBC News earlier in the evening that the explosion occurred when a car struck a gas main.
“Get out! You are not safe right here! Please!” rescue crews could be heard urging people who were trying to get a look at the scene in the blast’s aftermath.
“Fire is mostly under control,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James said on Twitter at about 8 p.m. ET, but numerous crews remained on the scene nearly an hour later as flames spewing thick, black smoke continued to burn.
According to The Associated Press, City Manager Troy Schulte said he had not heard of any fatalities and was not aware of anyone being reported missing. After 10:30 p.m. ET, authorities began searching the scene with cadaver dogs.
Berardi said he fears there may be fatalities at the scene, as the blast occurred during JJ’s Restaurant’s happy hour.
“Everything right now is geared toward people,” the mayor said at the news conference, adding that the search for people who may have been unable to get out of the collapsed structure would continue through the night.
At least 11 ambulances responded, fire officials said. A physician at Saint Luke’s Hospital said in a brief news conference the hospital had received five patients, including two patients in critical condition — one with severe burns and another with deep lacerations.
University of Kansas Hospital had received six injured people, including two in serious condition and one critical. Two patients drove themselves in with minor injuries.
Two patients arrived at the Research Medical Center, and another at the Truman Medical Center.
Witnesses told KSHB that they smelled natural gas in the area of the restaurant at least an hour before the explosion.
The blast occurred during the dinner hour at JJ’s Restaurant, a 27-year-old Kansas City institution. JJ’s is widely regarded as one of the best dinner spots in the Midwest, earning a 93 rating from Zagat’s, and its wine cellar has been listed by The Wine Spectator as one of the finest in the world.
Carlo Dellaverson, Sossy Dombourian, Gina Gentilesco and Zoya Khan of NBC News contributed to this report.