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Search continues for Kansas City restaurant worker after massive blast

A downtown restaurant was leveled following a gas explosion Tuesday night. Rescue crews are on the scene, trying to find one person unaccounted for.

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JJ's had managed — until Tuesday night — to survive in the shadow a large construction project that has been under way across the narrow, one-way street for seven years. The work had complicated access to the street-corner restaurant, and a server needed hospital treatment in 2006 after she was struck by a rock sent flying by blasting for excavation of the construction site.

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It was not known whether the contractor said by MGE to have been doing underground work was connected to the construction project.

Missouri utility regulators have launched an investigation the blast. The Missouri Public Service Commission said Wednesday that five staff have been dispatched to the site, and investigators will be looking at whether gas lines were properly marked before a contractor started doing underground work in the area. They will also look at whether MGE followed state rules in responding to a reported gas line leak before the explosion.

It could take up to six months before state regulators release a report on the incident. The Public Service Commission has the authority to make recommendations for changes and to seek fines in court.

Dr. John Verstraete, who works at Plaza Physicians Group next door to JJ's, told The Kansas City Star that several employees of the office smelled gas for several hours Tuesday afternoon. The smell grew stronger through the day, and a gas company employee entered the medical office just before 6 p.m. recommending that it be evacuated, he said.

The blast shattered windows in some businesses at a small strip mall nearby, and residents of some neighboring apartments reported minor interior damage. One side of a brick apartment building that shares the block with JJ's appeared to have been scorched.

Jim Ligon, a JJ's bartender, said he wasn't working Tuesday night but started getting texts and calls from co-workers minutes after the explosion. He said the incident happened during the peak of weekday happy hour, when there is typically anywhere from 15 to 45 people in the bar area as well as three to five tables of diners at the restaurant.

"JJ's has a small staff, a family feel," said Ligon, 45, of Kansas City, Mo. "You see the same 100 people all the time — a bar and restaurant for regulars. We're just really hoping we come out of here OK in terms of injuries."

The restaurant consistently received high ratings from contributors to Zagat's restaurant guides, both for its food and its wine list of hundreds of selections.

The shopping area was established in 1922 by J.C. Nichols. Based on the architecture of Seville, Spain, it includes retail, restaurants, apartments and offices.

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