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14 hurt in Kansas City gas blast

8:06 AM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
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A gas explosion triggered a massive fire at an upscale shopping center in Kansas City, Mo., Tuesday evening, injuring more than a dozen people, a city official said.

Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte said 14 people have been injured. He said officials don't yet know if there were any fatalities, but cadaver dogs are searching the blast site.

Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said the search for victims could take hours.

"I would always fear there are fatalities in a scene like this," Berardi said during a news conference Tuesday night. "When we got to the scene, we had a fully involved restaurant that had patrons, probably several patrons, inside at the time of incident."

Authorities said that at least three of the people sustained critical injuries.

Authorities are still investigating the cause of the blast, which appeared to have engulfed an entire block in flames. Police spokeswoman Rhonda Flores said while initially the explosion was attributed to a motor vehicle striking a natural gas line, the blast may have been triggered by a piece of heavy equipment disrupting the gas main.

Only after the search was complete - which wasn't expected until later Wednesday morning - would the site be released to investigators looking for the cause, Berardi said.

Missouri Gas Energy, the utility that supplies the area, said in a statement that "early indications are that a contractor doing underground work struck a natural gas line."

Berardi, however, cautioned that the cause was not yet known. "This investigation needs to be concluded before we want to speculate on any of that," he said.

"Some witnesses have said it might have been a construction worker on a backhoe doing construction in the area," Flores said. "We're still waiting for final word on that."

Berardi said officials don't suspect foul play at this time.

Three people are unaccounted for at JJ's Restaurant at Country Club Plaza, which was engulfed in flames, police said. The manager did not immediately know whether they had left before the explosion about 6 p.m. CT (7 p.m. ET).

The four-alarm blaze burned for about 90 minutes. Flores said it "appears to be contained."

Residents told KCTV they had smelled gas about an hour before the explosion and alerted the local utility.

KMBC-TV, citing a man who said he visited the restaurant regularly, reported that firefighters and Missouri Gas Energy representatives had been checking for the source of a gas odor before the explosion. Customers were asked to leave, but several employees stayed behind.

Contributing: Steve Wieberg in Kansas City; Michael Winter in San Francisco; Alia E. Dastagir in Tysons; Associated Press

William M. Welch, USA TODAY

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