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Natural Gas Explosion Damages Kansas City Shopping District
More than a dozen people were injured, at least two critically, and a young woman’s body had been recovered after an apparent natural gas leak triggered a huge explosion and four-alarm fire just after 6 p.m. Tuesday in an upscale Kansas City, MO, shopping district.
The inferno leveled a popular restaurant, JJ’s, and destroyed an entire city block, authorities said Wednesday. The recovered body may be a woman who worked at JJ’s who was said to be at the restaurant before the blast and reported missing after it. Area hospitals reported that as many as 19 people were treated, with six still in the hospital Wednesday.
“Early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line, but the investigation continues,” stated Missouri Gas Energy (MGE), the utility that serves the neighborhood. The fire was under control and the area was secured shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday.
According to authorities, emergency responders and MGE personnel began evacuating the area around 5:30 p.m. Close to 6 p.m. at least two explosions erupted, shattering glass and spreading debris. The blast was felt up to a mile away.
Fire Department Chief Paul Bernardi said emergency responders were combing the area because it was happy hour at the restaurant, and more people may have been inside. Responders were working at a quick pace ahead of a major snowstorm that was set to hit the area. Mayor Sly James said authorities could not be “100% sure that we can account for every single person” who might have been at JJ’s or in the surrounding area when the explosion occurred.
MGE, headquartered in Kansas City, MO, is a division of Southern Union Co. The utility serves more than 500,000 customers in 155 western Missouri towns.
The Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) dispatched staff members to the damaged site, where investigators plan to look at whether the gas lines were marked properly before a contractor began doing underground work in the area. The commission is responsible for intrastate natural gas pipeline safety for all intrastate gas pipelines, not only those that are investor-owned.
PSC Chairman Kevin Gunn said staff would conduct its work once fire and emergency responders had completed the search and rescue phase. He cautioned against speculation until the investigation is completed.
“Very preliminary reports indicate this leak may have been caused by a strike on a line, rather than a spontaneous infrastructure failure,” Gunn said. “However, we cannot know for certain until our staff completes what will be a very detailed inspection.”
Regulators also plan to look at whether MGE followed state rules in responding to the reported gas leak before the explosion. Many people who work and live in the area had reported a strong gas smell early Tuesday afternoon. One witness told the Kansas City Star that he had smelled gas and reported it to a construction crew working on a nearby project. The smell of gas was so strong that JJ’s employees were “covering their faces because of the odor,” a bystander said.
It may take up to six months before an investigation is completed, and PSC has the authority to make recommendations and to seek fines.
“We will continue to work with emergency responders and the appropriate authorities to continue to assess the situation and ensure that the area is safe,” MGE officials stated. “We will provide updates as more information becomes available.”
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