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Rescue crews sift through rubble after Durham explosion leaves 1 dead, 17 injured

Hear a first hand account of gas explosion in downtown Durham

Firefighters work to extinguish flames created by a gas explosion on N. Duke St. in downtown Durham on Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2019. As of 12:45 p.m. the blast killed at least one person and injured 15.
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Firefighters work to extinguish flames created by a gas explosion on N. Duke St. in downtown Durham on Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2019. As of 12:45 p.m. the blast killed at least one person and injured 15.

Search-and-rescue teams are sifting through the rubble after an explosion Wednesday morning in downtown Durham left one person dead and 17 people injured, officials said.

Durham firefighters responded to a 911 call about an odor of gas in the 100 block of N. Duke St. at about 9:38 a.m. and then contacted Dominion Energy, Fire Chief Robert J. Zoldos II said. Crews had started evacuating five nearby buildings when the explosion happened at 10:07 a.m., he said.

The City of Durham identified the man who died in the blast as Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee, 61, in a late Wednesday news release from Public Affairs Manager Wil Glenn. Kaffeinate was one of the businesses destroyed at the blast site.

DURHAM EXPLOSION:

WHAT WE KNOW

Injuries17, with 6 in critical condition
Deaths1 confirmed: Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee
LocationNear 115 N. Duke St., near downtown
CauseGas leak in area suspected
RespondingArea and state emergency teams, federal agencies
Buildings damagedAt least 5

Initially, city officials said the explosion happened when a contractor digging under a sidewalk near 115 N. Duke St. hit a 2-inch pipe. They said later they were investigating the cause of the leak.

“Until the investigation is complete, we don’t know that’s the source of the gas leak,” said Bo Ferguson, a deputy city manager. The Durham County Fire Marshal is overseeing the investigation, he said.

The explosion sent flames and a plume of smoke high into the air and turned to rubble a building that was home to a coffee shop and a construction software company. Four other buildings were damaged, Zoldos said.

Businesses and restaurants in the area were evacuated, and students from nearby Durham School of the Arts were dismissed early.

Before_After_115NDuke.jpg
Before and after shots of 115 N. Duke St. in Durham, N.C. The top shows a Google Maps street view, the bottom shows the aftermath of a gas explosion on April 10, 2019. GOOGLE (Top) / JIM ROGALSKI (Bottom)

Seven people were taken to Duke University Hospital, where six were in serious condition, said Lee Van Vleet, assistant chief of Durham County EMS. Five others were taken to Duke Regional, he said, and some were transported in private vehicles.

One person was being treated at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC, he said.

Darren Wheeler, a Durham firefighter, was injured in the blast, the city said. He underwent surgery Wednesday and is recovering. Zoldos had described Wheeler’s injuries as serious but not life-threatening.

A PSNC Energy employee was among those injured and taken to the hospital, Dominion said Wednesday evening.

Witnesses reported hearing and feeling a loud explosion that shattered window panes. Then chaos.

“People were sitting at their desks and ceiling tiles were falling,” said Jim Rogalski, who works in a Duke University office directly across Duke Street from the explosion. “Stuff flew off shelves. You could barely see for 25 feet from all the dust. People were screaming.”

It could take two days for rescue crews to search through the rubble, Zoldos said. Everyone who worked in the buildings has been accounted for, he said, but there could be customers or other people who were there.

Thirty-five members of the Raleigh and Chapel Hill fire departments went to Durham on Wednesday, said Keith Acree, a spokesman with the state Department of Public Safety. They are trained by the state to rescue people from collapsed buildings.

Fire and police radio traffic give the sequence of events leading up to the gas explosion at 115 N. Duke St. in Durham, NC on April 10, 2019.

A hazardous materials regional team from Raleigh was also on the scene, Acree said, as were structural engineers who do not work for government agencies but who provide technical advice to rescuers as they search buildings.

Will Hunt, who works at the Peabody Place building a block away from the explosion, said he did not receive any sort of warning about a gas leak. The road was not closed, he said, adding that a co-worker drove by the building just before the blast.

“About two minutes after my co-worker came back, the explosion happened,” Hunt said. “It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Our roof moved. It sounded like something extremely heavy was dropped on top of our building.”

Firefighters attempt to put out a fire caused by an explosion and collapse near Brightleaf Square area of Durham on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. One person is dead and 15 have been taken to the hospital.

Dottie Flake was walking to work from her home on Trinity Avenue and was a block from the scene.

“I just heard a boom, and didn’t know what it was with all the construction around here,” she said. “I saw the smoke, then fire trucks and first responders, and everyone was rushing out of their buildings.”

Police and fire officials were in the area of Duke and Morgan streets Wednesday morning in response to an explosion and building collapse. Our news partner ABC11 reports from the scene.

Dominion Energy cut off the gas for 19 meters in the area, the company said Wednesday evening.

“We are deeply saddened by today’s tragedy,” Rodney Blevins, CEO of the company’s Southeast Energy Group, said in a statement. “Our thoughts, prayers and sympathy are with the families of those who were injured and the deceased. Our focus now is working in cooperation with local agencies to ensure the area is safe for residents to return.”

The blast destroyed a two-story building that may have attic space, Zoldos said. The 115 N. Duke St. address is home to a the coffee shop Kaffeinate and a company called Prescient, which recently moved its headquarters from Colorado to Durham.

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The scene in downtown Durham, NC moments after a gas explosion that killed at least one and injured several Wednesday morning, April 10, 2019. Jim Rogalski

On Instagram, Kaffeinate urged its customers to stay away.

“Please do not come to the shop or the area around it,” the business said on the social media site earlier on Wednesday. “We are ok. We will update when we can. Thank you so much.”

The block also houses Torero’s Mexican restaurant and Saint James Seafood.

Durham officials said residents of the West Village Toms Building, which is not currently habitable, will get hotel vouchers, according to the Wednesday night news release from Wil Glenn. But Gregson Street, which had closed amid the explosion, has reopened.

People displaced by the explosion can visit Dominion Energy’s Claims Operations Center at 900 W. Main St. when it reopens at 8 a.m. Thursday, Glenn said in his news release. The claims center, which also is Maverick’s Smokehouse & Taproom, also had been open late into Wednesday night.

First responders remove a victim from the scene of an explosion and fire at a building at 115 N. Duke St. in downtown Durham, April 10, 2019, as reported by our news partner ABC11.

Wednesday was Durham’s 150th birthday, and city employees had gathered in City Hall to celebrate. What was supposed to be a party turned into a sad gathering, said council member Mark-Anthony Middleton.

“This is a challenging and dark day,” he said. “We are saddened and heartbroken over the loss of life.”

First responders continue to go through the rubble left by an explosion near Brightleaf Square in Durham on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. City officials spoke to the media about the on-going efforts to secure the area and make sure all are safe.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel praised first responders.

“Our police, fire and emergency services have been absolutely incredible — our firefighters standing there with their hoses, not knowing if there would be another explosion,” Schewel said.

Search-and-rescue teams are sifting through the rubble after an explosion Wednesday morning in downtown Durham left one person dead and 17 people injured.

Dominion Energy said on Twitter that it has cut off gas to the area.

“Our thoughts & prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families,” Dominion tweeted.

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Photos from the scene of a building explosion and fire on W. Main Street in Durham, NC April 10, 2019.

Reporters Josh Shaffer, Lynn Bonner, Drew Jackson, Tammy Grubb and Joe Johnson contributed.

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