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Gas leak reported before blast leveled restaurant

Crews sifted through the rubble of the restaurant on Wednesday as they searched for more possible victims of the blast.

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Crews sifted through the rubble of the restaurant on Wednesday as they searched for more possible victims of the blast.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A day after a natural gas explosion leveled a popular restaurant, investigators raced to search the rubble and tried to understand how the blast happened despite suspicions that flammable fuel had been leaking, maybe for weeks, somewhere in the busy outdoor shopping area.

Hours before the explosion, witnesses reported a strong smell of gas, and firefighters were summoned to the scene at one point but left without ordering an evacuation.

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As the cleanup got underway Wednesday, search-and-rescue crews recovered a body, and the mayor worried that the debris could be concealing other victims.

Mayor Sly James declined to say whether the body was that of a man or a woman, though authorities had been looking for a missing woman who worked at JJ’s restaurant and had been seen there before the Tuesday evening blast. They previously said she was the only person still unaccounted for.

But James said at a news conference that authorities could not be ‘‘100 percent sure’’ they had accounted ‘‘for every single person that may have been at JJ’s when the explosion occurred.’’ The search started without a list of people who were in the building.

Crews using flashlights, cadaver dogs, and heavy equipment were rushing to finish the search ahead of a winter storm that was expected to bring heavy snow.

The explosion occurred after a construction crew apparently struck a natural gas line, touching off a blast that could be felt for nearly a mile. It shattered glass in nearby buildings and sent up an ominous smoke plume.

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Fifteen people were injured. Six were still hospitalized Wednesday, James said.

People who live and work in the area reported smelling gas for some time.

Jeff Rogers was waiting at a bus stop down the street from JJ’s when the explosion knocked him and another man to the ground.

He said he had smelled gas at the intersection for the past couple of weeks. Then the odor intensified Tuesday.

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