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February 21, 2013

Gas leak reported before explosion leveled restaurant

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A day after a natural gas explosion leveled a popular restaurant, investigators raced to search the rubble and tried to understand how the blast happened despite suspicions that flammable fuel had been leaking, maybe for weeks, somewhere in the busy outdoor shopping area.

Hours before the explosion, witnesses reported a strong smell of gas, and firefighters were summoned to the scene at one point but left without ordering an evacuation.

As the cleanup got under way Wednesday, search-and-rescue crews recovered a body. Mayor Sly James declined to identify the victim, but the mother of a missing restaurant server said her family was awaiting confirmation that the remains were those of her daughter.

More than an hour before the blast, a subcontractor working for a cable company hit a gas line with underground boring equipment. Then something inside the restaurant ignited the fuel, authorities said.

Surveillance video from a nearby travel agency shows a fireball erupting from the restaurant’s roof, showering the street with debris and throwing up a cloud of dust and smoke. The blast could be felt for a mile and shattered glass in neighboring buildings.

Fifteen people were injured. Six were still hospitalized Wednesday, James said.

People who live and work in the area reported smelling gas for some time before the accident.

Jeff Rogers was waiting at a bus stop down the street from JJ’s when the explosion knocked him and another man to the ground.

He said he had smelled gas — although “not strong” — at the intersection for the past couple of weeks. Then the odor intensified Tuesday.

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