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(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Officials inspect a burned out JJ's Restaurant at the Plaza shopping district of Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013.
(AP Photo/Ed Zurga). Two men look at the rubble of JJ's restaurant after an explosion and fire tore through the establishment Tuesday evening near the Country Club Plaza Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, in Kansas City, Mo.
Beloved JJ's restaurant now a symbol of lossMore>>
Wednesday, February 20 2013 9:37 PM EST2013-02-21 02:37:28 GMT
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -
It was a beloved fixture on Kansas City's
culinary scene for more than 27 years. A legendary wine list,
well-reviewed food, hospitable staff and intimate setting made JJ's a
smart choice for everything from popping a cork on a rare varietal to
popping the question.
But Tuesday's deadly blast reduced the Country Club
Plaza landmark to scorched rubble and apparently killed an employee,
casting an indelible pall on the years of fond memories shared by
patrons and staff alike.
The blast occurred after a construction crew
apparently struck a natural gas line, touching off an explosion that
could be felt for nearly a mile.
Fifteen people were injured, and the remains of one
body were found in the rubble. The victim has not been formally
identified, but Genny Cramer said she was confident based on information
from authorities that it was her daughter, Megan Cramer, a 46-year-old
server at JJ's, who was killed.
"We talked on the phone the day she died," Genny
Cramer said. "She said she was doing well and was getting ready for
work. She told us she loved us, and we told her we love her too. It is
very sad. We're going to miss her so much."
Jimmy Frantze, JJ's owner, said Wednesday experts were looking into the cause and that he was worried about his workers.
"I've talked to about half my employees," he said. "They are all upset. They lost a co-worker."
Frantze opened JJ's in 1985 and quickly found success.
Oenophiles coveted its knockout wine list, by some
estimates 1,800 bottles deep. In 2005, JJ's won its second Grand Award
from Wine Spectator magazine, one of only 84 restaurants worldwide to
earn the honor that year.
"If you were a wine aficionado, it was a great
place to go," said Mary Bunten, 49, who lives about a mile away but
walked her dogs past the wreckage Wednesday. "I was looking at the
helicopter pictures and looking at water and wine running down the
street. I wonder if they are going to rebuild it. It had a lot of
character to it."
Locals knew JJ's as a prime after-work stop, though
it won broader attention after receiving consistently high ratings from
contributors to Zagat's restaurant guides.
Many workers at regulars said Wednesday their thoughts were foremost with the injured and family of the deceased.
A Missouri Gas Energy official said a subcontractor
working for a cable company hit a natural gas line with an underground
borer more than an hour before Tuesday's explosion. MGE Chief Operating
Officer Rob Hack said a Heartland Midwest worker called 911 at 4:54 p.m.
Tuesday to report hitting a gas line near the restaurant.
MGE workers arrived at the scene shortly after, and
Hack said those who had remained inside the restaurant before the blast
were urged to get out. Evidence suggests the ignition point was inside
JJ's, Fire Chief Paul Berardi said, but he didn't say what might have
sparked the gas.
The explosion shattered glass in nearby buildings,
and the resulting inferno sent an ominous smoke plume high above the
outdoor shopping district.
In addition to the fatality, fifteen people were injured, including two who remained in critical condition.
Brad Russell, a lawyer for Heartland Midwest,
released a statement late Wednesday expressing sympathy for the victims
and saying the company is cooperating with authorities. "We are
reserving any public comment until the completion of a thorough
investigation," the statement concluded.
Until Tuesday night's explosion, JJ's had managed
to survive in the shadow of 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.
The construction project languished and eventually stalled out in 2008.
"We go in there all the time," said Amber Blahut,
29, who lives nearby and JJ's was a favorite spot to meet up with
friends. "It's one of those places that there's been so much
construction for so long that for a restaurant like that to maintain
such a following."
It's uncertain whether Frantze will rebuild. The
development that stalled out has been restarted and is expected to open
later this year with a large law firm as a chief tenant, theoretically
providing a new JJ's with a well-heeled clientele.
But on Wednesday, Frantze was noncommittal.
"We're dealing with the loss of a business so I'm not sure," he said.
Copyright 2013 The
Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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