By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A blast and fire that flattened a Kansas City restaurant, killing a young woman and injuring 15 others, apparently erupted an hour after a contractor installing cable nearby severed a natural gas line and caused a leak, officials said on Wednesday.
The eatery, JJ's restaurant, in the upscale Country Club Plaza district of shops, restaurants and hotels considered a Kansas City landmark, was engulfed by flames at dinnertime on Tuesday after an explosion thought to have originated inside the restaurant.
Several patrons and employees were inside the restaurant and wine bar at the time of the blast, which blew out some windows in adjacent buildings. The remains of a woman were pulled from the rubble on Wednesday.
Contractor Heartland Midwest had been drilling into the ground about an hour before the blast on Tuesday and hit a 2-inch pipe near the restaurant, Rob Hack, chief operating officer of Missouri Gas Energy, told a news conference.
Gas built up in and around JJ's and was apparently ignited inside the building just as gas company crews were trying to repair the severed pipe outside, Hack said, adding that the source of the ignition was not yet clear.
Heartland Midwest could not be reached for comment.
The explosion killed one person who was in the bar area of the restaurant, Fire Chief Paul Berardi said. The victim's name and gender were not released but city officials have referred to her unofficially as a young woman.
"We have run down every lead which we are currently aware of for possible missing persons and have found no more victims at this time," Berardi told a news conference on Wednesday. "The search-for-victims phase has ceased ... and we are moving on to the cause, origin and the property damage assessment phase."
Three people were listed in critical condition and three others in serious condition on Wednesday at area hospitals, officials said. Three gas company employees were among the injured, Hack said.
Berardi said Heartland Midwest called 911 just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday to report the breach of the line, and the fire department notified Missouri Gas Energy in turn.
Hack said gas company workers using a backhoe dug down to the breach to try to vent the gas, and that crews measured the level of natural gas in the air and recommended employees evacuate the restaurant, Hack said.
Some people remained inside when the explosion and fire occurred, he said, adding that the backhoe did not trigger the blast.
The explosion blew out windows in adjacent buildings and triggered a fire that reached several stories into the sky. More than 100 firefighters responded to the blast and fire.
(Editing by Leslie Adler, Andrew Hay, Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham)
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