February 20, 2013

After body found, focus at JJ’s turns to investigation

Authorities pulled a body out of the rubble of JJ’s restaurant today. Meanwhile, five victims of the explosion remain at KU Hospital, and one at St. Luke’s.

A body was found this morning in the debris of JJ’s restaurant, where fire crews searched for a female server missing after a massive explosion rocked the area just west of the Country Club Plaza Tuesday night.

The body was discovered in the bar area in the southwest corner of the building.

In Springfield, the family of Megan Cramer told The Star that they had been contacted by authorities in Kansas City. Cramer, 46, had been a server at JJ’s for several months.

The family said confirmation using medical records might take 24 to 48 hours.

Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said JJ’s, 910 W. 48th St., was reduced to rubble three or four feet deep, with debris too heavy for crews to lift manually, requiring heavy equipment for a careful search.

But the fire department is also mindful that, with a winter storm bearing down on Kansas City, they need to work quickly to try to find anyone who might still be in the building.

“We’re working two critical situations,” he said. “We have a short window of time to do a lot of work. We’ll continue through this process to ensure that there aren’t other victims.”

He said search-and-rescue crews and cadaver dogs spent three hours Tuesday night searching the scene.

Ambulances took nine people to area hospitals last night and six others made their own way to hospitals. Berardi said the injuries included burns, head injuries and abrasions from flying glass.

University of Kansas Hospital said this afternoon that it had five patients whose conditions ranged from serious to extremely critical. St. Luke’s Hospital has one patient, a male in serious condition with trauma injuries and smoke inhalation.

A KU Hospital trauma surgeon described injuries comparable to what might be seen in wartime: severe concussions, lacerations, multiple fractures, injuries to the liver and spleen, lung injuries that may require days or weeks on a ventilator, burns that will require multiple surgeries.

“There’s no patient with just one thing (injured),” surgeon Michael Moncure said.

Moncure said one patient who was in serious condition in the hospital’s burn unit may be well enough to be released by Thursday.

But two other patients in the burn unit were in critical condition and two patients with other traumatic injuries were in “extremely critical” condition, Moncure said.

Another KU Hospital patient who was initially in serious condition was treated and released Tuesday night.

Moncure said patients were injured when the blast threw them against walls and struck them with debris. But it was the shock wave of the explosion that was particularly damaging, causing severe brain and lung injuries.

“Most of what we’ve seen is from the pressure of the blast,” Moncure said.

KU Hospital chaplain Greg Delort spent Tuesday night talking to patients and their families. Several patients were trying to figure out how they had managed to survive and wondered what had happened to others at the scene, Delort said.

“They mostly seemed to be overwhelmed,” Delort said. “They were still sometimes shaking from the incident.”

The explosion was reported about 6 p.m. Tuesday and is believed to have come from a natural gas leak. Some witnesses have reported smelling natural gas several hours before the explosion, but both Berardi and City Manager Troy Schulte said this morning that they were not aware of any gas leak lasting that long.

Berardi said the fire department was called about 5:15 p.m. and told that a construction contractor working in the area had struck a gas line. He said fire crews arrived quickly on the scene, conferred with representatives of Missouri Gas Energy and were told the situation was under control.

“We left the situation in their hands,” Berardi said.

The explosion occurred about 50 minutes later. Berardi said the exact circumstances are under investigation today. He said he did not know the exact time the calls about the gas odor came in but said it was around 5:15 p.m.

“All of that is under investigation,” he said. “That process is just now beginning.”

James declined to discuss who was to blame but said the fire department deferred to Missouri Gas Energy.

“The utility company was there working on what they do,” he said. “They do gas. They tell the fire department that everything is under control. The fire department has to defer. When those situations exist, the fire department defers to those with expertise.

“I understand everybody wants to know what happened, everybody wants to blame somebody,” the mayor said. “That’s not going to happen today. The main thing we’re focusing on is taking care of people. We’ll get to the blame phase later.”

James said officials had talked to Missouri Gas Energy late last night “and they were trying to figure out what was going on.”

When asked if the utility had been invited to speak at the news conference, he said they were aware that it was taking place.

Three of the injured people at hospitals Tuesday night were Missouri Gas Energy employees, according to Kevin Gunn, chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission.

Berardi said this morning that all natural gas had been restored to other buildings in the area. Customers should call 1-800-582-1234 and ask to have their pilot lights re-lit, he said.

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