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Feb. 20, 2013 at 8:07 AM
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Kansas City restaurant blast blamed on gas

KANSAS CITY, Mo., Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A fire and explosion that gutted a decades-old Kansas City restaurant and injured at least 16 people apparently was caused by a gas leak, officials said.

Firefighters with cadaver dogs examined the wreckage of JJ's Restaurant after the blaze, The Kansas City Star reported Wednesday. Fire Chief Paul Berardi said investigators weren't certain everyone got out of the building.

One person apparently had not been accounted for, officials said.

Witnesses reported a strong natural gas odor in the area several hours before the explosion at 6 p.m. CDT. Four employees of JJ's said they began canceling the evening's reservations at 5 p.m. because the smell had worsened and there were relatively few patrons inside the restaurant when the blast occurred.

Missouri Gas Energy said a contractor working in the building may have hit a gas line. The company said an investigation was under way.

A self-described regular at the restaurant told KMBC-TV, Kansas City, firefighters and utility representatives were checking for the source of a gas odor before the explosion.

Owner Jimmy Frantze was in Oklahoma when the fire broke out. He left to return to Kansas City Tuesday.

"It was 28 years of a great restaurant, and then it has to end like this," Frantze told the Star. "I want to check on my employees. I want to make sure they are all right."

The force of the explosion knocked out windows at least a half-block away and was felt nearly a mile away, the Star reported. Witnesses said flames towered above the building and bricks and broken glass were scattered about.

"It sounded like thunder, but it felt like an earthquake," said Tracey Truitt, a lawyer who was working in a nearby building.

Prosecutors urge Pistorius be denied bail

PRETORIA, South Africa, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius, accused of killing his girlfriend at his South African home, is a flight risk and should be denied bail, prosecutors said.

During a bail hearing in a Pretoria courtroom Wednesday, prosecutors offered testimony that Pistorius had offshore accounts and a home in Italy, which would make it difficult to get him back to South Africa for trial if he left the country, CNN reported.

Pistorius, charged with premeditated murder in the shooting death of 29-year-old model Reeva Steenkamp, sat in the courtroom with his head bowed, sometimes crying.

Pistorius said he thought he was shooting at an intruder, not Steenkamp, when he fired at a closed bathroom door at his home in Pretoria.

Wednesday's bail hearing was marked by testimony offered by a police officer and the effort by Pistorius' attorney to pick it apart.

Police officer Hilton Botha testified Pistorius, 26, fired his gun directly at the toilet, saying if he shot at the door, he would have missed the toilet. He testified that he believed the athlete knew Steenkamp was in the bathroom when he opened fire.

Police recovered a firearm on a bathmat and two cell phones in the bathroom that weren't recently used. Botha said police believe a blood-splattered cricket bat found in the bathroom was used to break down the door.

Police said they found bullets in a safe and plan to add a possession of unlicensed ammunition charge against Pistorius, the police officer said. Two boxes of testosterone and needles also were found inside the home, officials said.

Union leader dies as strike begins

NEW DELHI, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A trade union leader died after being hit by a bus Wednesday in India as several unions started a two-day nationwide strike to protest government policies.

The victim, identified as Narendar Singh, a bus driver, died in Ambala in northern Haryana state, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Other reports said the strike, called to protest higher fuel and other prices and policies, had affected banking and transport services.

PTI, quoting a roadway official, said Singh was sitting with other striking workers near a bus depot when he was struck by a vehicle that he tried to stop from moving. The report said other workers damaged police vehicles. Security was later tightened at various locations.

Financial Express reported the strike by 11 trade unions disrupted life in some states, affecting banking and transport sectors.

In New Delhi, local train services weren't affected but taxis and three-wheeler auto-rickshaws stayed off the roads in sympathy with the unions, affecting some commuters.

Demands of the unions include strict enforcement of labor laws at work places, social security net for workers in unorganized sectors and an end to disinvestment of public sector companies.

The strike comes as the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, fighting inflation, a slowing economy and rising deficits prepares to present a budget this month.

There is also opposition to the government's reform efforts such as opening the retail and insurance sectors to foreign investors.

Rubio 'appreciated' Obama immigration call

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he felt "good" about Senate immigration-reform talks and "appreciated" talking with President Barack Obama about the needed reform.

The Florida Republican "appreciated receiving President Obama's phone call to discuss immigration reform late tonight in Jerusalem," Rubio said in a statement Tuesday issued by a spokesman.

Rubio, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member and a possible 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, is touring Israel and Jordan.

"The senator told the president that he feels good about the ongoing negotiations in the Senate, and is hopeful the final product is something that can pass the Senate with strong bipartisan support," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said.

The remarks came several hours after Obama phoned Rubio and fellow Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona -- three of the four GOP members of a Senate bipartisan group of eight seeking to create a legislative compromise on overhauling the nation's immigration system.

In the phone calls, Obama discussed with the senators "their shared commitment to bipartisan, common-sense immigration reform," the White House said.

Obama also commended the senators "for the bipartisan progress that continues to be made by the Gang of 8 on this important issue," the White House said.

The fourth Republican member of the group, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, was in Cuba with a seven-member bipartisan congressional delegation. The White House said Obama hoped to talk to him soon.

Chemist who caused blast out on $2M bail

SACRAMENTO, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A University of California, Davis, chemist in jail for allegedly causing a blast in his on-campus apartment was released on $2 million bail, officials said.

Yolo County chief assistant deputy district attorney Michael Cabral said David Snyder's family members put up their homes and other properties up as collateral to secure the chemist's release last week.

Snyder is free pending a March 14 court date, though he is prohibited from stepping foot on the UC Davis campus without first notifying campus police, the Sacramento (Calif.) Bee reported Wednesday.

Snyder, 32, a Ph.D. chemist employed as a junior researcher at the university injured his hand in an explosion Jan. 17 that caused the evacuation of 74 residents from five campus residential buildings.

He pleaded not guilty to 27 explosives and weapons-related charges.

UC Davis Police Chief Matt Carmichael said there was no evidence Snyder was planning to harm anyone.

Snyder's lawyers said the explosion was an accident and it was the chemist's restless curiosity that led to the blast.

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