Skip to main content

Officials: Contractor for cable company hit gas line before explosion

By Steve Almasy, CNN
February 21, 2013 -- Updated 0042 GMT (0842 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Gas company workers detected high levels in the air before asking people to leave
  • Search for bodies called off as accident investigators move in
  • The natural gas explosion leveled popular restaurant about 6 p.m. CT Tuesday
  • Worker describes being trapped near flames to CNN affiliate

See CNN affiliate coverage on KSHB, KCTV and KMBC

(CNN) -- An employee of a subcontractor laying fiber optic cable hit a 2-inch gas line with an underground boring machine about an hour before an explosion killed one person at a popular restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi told reporters the subcontractor, Heartland Midwest, called 911 at 4:55 p.m. CT to report the accident.

Authorities do not know what caused the leaking gas to ignite, according to Rob Hack, chief operating officer of Missouri Gas Energy.

"But all the damaged points to ignition inside the restaurant," he said.

One body was pulled Wednesday from the debris at JJ's restaurant, a popular place near Country Club Plaza, a locale with upscale shops and restaurants.

Officials said Wednesday afternoon they believed there were no more missing people or undiscovered bodies.

Gas explosion causes huge fire, injuries
Witness: Kansas City fire was 'huge'
Gas explosion causes huge fire, injuries
Massive blast rocks Kansas City

"The people stage has basically concluded," Mayor Sly James told reporters. Authorities were moving into the investigation phase, he said.

The explosion occurred just after 6 p.m. Tuesday.

One female employee was reported missing after the blast, but Fire Chief Paul Berardi said it was too early to confirm the identity of the victim, whose body was found near the restaurant's bar area.

At least 15 people were injured in the blast.

Six people remained hospitalized Wednesday, three in critical condition, Berardi said.

Berardi released a timeline of events that began with the subcontractor calling 911 shortly before 5 p.m. local time to report the accident.

A Missouri Gas Energy employee showed up about 20 minutes later and, after some initial readings on gas-measuring devices, called for backup, Hack said.

MGE employees on the scene went into businesses and asked people to leave because levels were above the state's threshold for gas concentrations in the air.

The gas company also brought in excavating equipment to try to vent the pipe, but the explosion occurred before they could alleviate the problem. Three of the company's workers were hospitalized, Hack said.

'I thought I was going to die'

The odor of natural gas led to the early closure of JJ's restaurant, but hostess Deidre Estes and other employees weren't in a rush to leave, unaware of the danger they were in.

Then, "Boom! And everything was black," Estes told CNN affiliate KCTV.

The blast ripped the roof off of the restaurant.

"I thought I was going to die. Honestly, I thought I was trapped in there," Estes told KCTV. "I saw the flames, and I was scared I was going to burn up. And then with all my might, I got this strength and lifted the rubble off."

A utility crew investigating the odor had suggested that the restaurant close, but gave no sense of urgency or the potential for an explosion.

The mayor confirmed that the fire department responded to a call about the gas odor, about 50 minutes before the blast, but left the scene after being told by the utility company that everything was under control.

"When these situations exist, the fire department defers to the expertise of any utility who is there," James said.

Debris was stacked 3- to 4-feet high where the restaurant once stood. Among the rubble was the gas company's destroyed backhoe.

Watch video of the explosion's aftermath

Jennifer Carter, who was in the restaurant, told CNN affiliate KSHB that a man who had a hand-held device came in before the blast and told her and 10 others to leave. Employees had already turned off appliances after smelling gas, she said.

Carter complied. She was just a few blocks away when she heard the explosion.

The gas sent flames a few stories high into the night sky. More than 100 firefighters responded, Berardi said.

Dr. Leonardo Lozada heard the explosion a block and a half away at St. Luke's Health Systems, where he is chief physician.

"It was pretty loud. I just heard it; it wasn't that traumatic," he said.

The restaurant's owner, James Frantze, was in Oklahoma at the time of the blast. A message on the restaurant's Facebook page made a simple request of patrons:

"Please keep our friends and families in your hearts and prayers."

CNN's Carma Hassan, Mariano Castillo and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 1521 GMT (2321 HKT)
The first human trial of an experimental Ebola vaccine has produced promising results, U.S. scientists said.
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)
Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed black teen in August abandoned home after address made public.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 2236 GMT (0636 HKT)
HBO -- backing a documentary based on "Going Clear," a book about Scientology and Hollywood -- isn't taking any chances with legal side.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Grandmaster Nguyen Van Chieu has devoted his adult life to spreading the word about Vietnames martial art, Vovinam.
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
England cricketer Nick Compton shares insight into "drive and courage" it takes to face fears as top batsman.
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 0059 GMT (0859 HKT)
Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson says he was just doing his "job right" when he shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 0118 GMT (0918 HKT)
The interior of the Formosa Boulevard Mass Rapid Transit Station in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan.
Stunning stations where your first priority won't be finding the nearest exit.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 2318 GMT (0718 HKT)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says women's "nature is different," sparking fury.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 1043 GMT (1843 HKT)
A 30-year-old woman has been charged with attempting to kill a baby police say spent five days down a drain before being discovered by cyclists.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
If it wasn't for a comic's skit, Bill Cosby would still be America's favorite father, says expert.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 0051 GMT (0851 HKT)
Where do hip young things hang out in Taiwan?
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Obama orders the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration in decades, prioritizing the deportation of "felons, not families."
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2106 GMT (0506 HKT)
Fighters loyal to ISIS are now in control of Derna, a city on Libya's Mediterranean coast.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
China and likely other countries have the capacity to shut down the U.S. power grid, says the NSA.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1945 GMT (0345 HKT)
The founder of a U.S. nonprofit that works with returning soldiers is named CNN's Hero of the Year.
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 1703 GMT (0103 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT