Fire
4:09 pm
Wed February 20, 2013

'Miraculous': Employees Cleared Restaurant Of Patrons Before Blast

The best eye-witnesses to the explosion at JJ’s yesterday were also the people who were in the most danger – the restaurant’s workers. Bartenders, busboys, a hostess and others were the last ones out of that burning building.

JJ’s general manager Matt Nichols was working in the wine vault yesterday. Although people at a nearby doctor’s office said they smelled the natural gas as early as one o’clock, Nichols and other workers didn’t detect anything until mid-afternoon. But by 5 o’clock, employees got their first indication of something serious when they had their first visit about the problem.

“It was the fire department sometime around 5 p.m. saying, ‘Just open the doors up and let the air out,’” said Dave Frantze, co-owner of JJ's with his brother, Jimmy.

A few minutes later, the fire department came back to tell those in the restaurant that they were waiting for Missouri Gas Energy to get a backhoe. Then around 5:30 p.m., Missouri Gas Energy officials came into the restaurant, said the backhoe had arrived and they would soon start digging.

“Matt said then, shortly after that, the people from MGE came back in with these sensor/tester/sniffing things and said the levels are too high and you need to get evacuate everybody.”

That was roughly 5:45 p.m. So the workers went table-to-table and person-to-person in the bar and told patrons to leave. With everyone out, the workers were trying to evacuate when the building blew up at about 6 o’clock – a fireball can be seen in surveillance video erupting from the site and residents blocks away said the explosion felt like an earthquake.

The last few JJ’s employees to get out of the burning building had to climb over a pile of debris lodged in the front door. Dave Frantze has a word for that.

“They are heroes. They got every single – excuse me – they got every single patron out of there, and they did what they were supposed to do. These are waiters and busboys and cooks and managers and bartenders and they took care of every single customer. And got ‘em outta there. I think that’s pretty miraculous.”

A female server was still missing today. A freelance photographer on the scene as the building blew up published shots on kansascity.com Wednesday of two men in chef’s coats, bloodied, staggering in the street.

Find more coverage of the Plaza fire from KCUR here.