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February 20, 2013

Response to explosion was quick — and huge

Ordinary people gave extraordinary help, as did emergency crews from around area.

Seconds after hearing the roar of the explosion, feeling what one person described as the shaking a rider feels on a roller coaster, people flocked to help the injured.

Along Jarboe Street, residents brought blankets from their homes to tend to passers-by injured by flying glass and other debris.

From across Kansas City, roughly a dozen ambulances barreled to the western end of the Country Club Plaza during heavy rush-hour traffic to assist emergency crews, including more than 100 firefighters, responding from both sides of the state line.

And area emergency rooms prepped to take victims, not knowing how many might arrive.

Hospitals treated at least 16 patients, four who suffered critical injuries.

Two of those went to St. Luke’s Hospital, about 10 blocks from the scene. One man had severe burns and a second man suffered unknown trauma, said Marc Larsen, medical director of St. Luke’s emergency room.

The less severely injured included Deidre Estes, a hostess at JJ’s, who suffered a broken cheekbone and a deep cut that required stitches at St. Luke’s. She was working behind the bar with a friend and two bartenders at the time of the explosion.

“The building just blew up,” she said.

Later in the evening, St. Luke’s spokeswoman Kerry O’Connor said it was hard to know whether the two critically injured would survive.

“It is pretty serious,” O’Connor said.

St. Luke’s treated six others who had minor injuries, including abrasions and smoke inhalation. They were not expected to be admitted Tuesday night.

The explosion rocked the west Plaza area shortly after 6 p.m.

Firefighters found JJ’s restaurant, a wine bar that had been at the location for 27 years, engulfed in smoke and flames, said Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi as he stood in a smoky haze with the smell of gas still lingering near the scene some two hours after the explosion.

The fire chief said he didn’t know whether Missouri Gas Energy workers were among the injured, but believed they were on the scene before the explosion.

Mayor Sly James said he was in his office when he started getting calls about an explosion. “The city responded as well as it possibly could,” James said. “I was just praying there weren’t people in JJ’s like there are so many times on a Tuesday evening at 5:30. … That place would often be packed.”

Kevin Fossland, a server who typically works Tuesday nights but wasn’t working this night, spent much of the evening after the explosion on the phone with JJ’s general manager Matt Nichols trying to account for employees and check conditions of those who were injured.

Late Tuesday, one female server remained unaccounted for, Fossland said.

“She’s a dear friend of mine,” he said. “I’m just sick. I recruited her to come work here.

“She’s phenomenal. She and I tag team and do everything at that restaurant. We play off each other very well.”

He said a male sous chef was in “bad shape.”

Fossland said Nichols and other co-workers told him the building was “pretty much vacated” except for the staff when the explosion occurred. They had told all customers to leave after learning about a gas leak. Workers were unplugging all gas appliances.

Before the explosion, Estes, the hostess, said the staff was told there was a gas leak, but they would be OK. It wasn’t urgent, and someone was coming to check it out.

Someone came back in later, as employees were packing to leave, with a more urgent message: You need to leave this second.

“Then there was a boom,” Estes said. “Everything went black.”

The explosion knocked her down.

“Debris was all over me,” she said. “There were flames to the left, I was terrified I was going to catch on fire.”

She grabbed a male server’s hand and they got out together. “I just kept saying don’t let go of my hand. Finally, we saw daylight.”

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