Durham officials update public and offer sympathy to family of gas explosion fatality
Kindness takes many forms, and coffee shop owner Kong Lee showed it with coffee, waffles and warmth, according to a community of patrons and friends of his Durham cafe Kaffeinate.
Lee was killed Wednesday when a gas leak near his coffee shop on Duke Street exploded, collapsing the building and injuring 25 people, leaving a city — and Kaffeinate’s beloved customers and fellow business owners — in mourning.
After Lee, 61, was identified as the sole victim in Wednesday’s explosion, Kaffeinate’s social media accounts were flooded with condolences, tributes and stories of warmth found in the shop run by Lee and his two children, Diana Lee and Raymond Lee.
Friday morning, the siblings posted a lengthy statement on social media, saying they lost “the best dad we could have ever asked for.”
“He had the biggest, purest heart out of anyone we know,” the wrote. “He always wanted a cafe because he loved to serve people, and we were finally able to build him one. He loved being able to bring people something that would make them smile. The family we created at Kaffeinate made him so happy. We watched your smiles give him strength and joy. Thank you.”
As much as he loved the shop and its customers, he was devoted to his family, doing “everything to give us the best life he could.”
“That means he often worked 12-13 hour days doing jobs no one else wanted to do. He never complained because he never wanted us to worry. That was our dad.”
His hard work and kindness earned the shop devoted customers who treated him like family. Many customers said Lee’s kindness was a source of comfort and said they found the city they always imagined in the family business.
Coffee shops have a tendency to become gathering places, and Kaffeinate was known as a popular space for Duke students, the Durham School of the Arts community, downtown workers and residents of West Village Apartments.
“There was an amazing spirit there, and in Mr. Lee and his family — and everything they created on that little hidden spot,” said Kevin Primus, a Kaffeinate regular and Durham resident for 25 years. He spoke to The News & Observer Thursday.
“The diversity of the community they created — I overheard conversations that ran the gamut of every lifestyle — is truly representative of this city and who we want to be,” Primus said.
Primus said he would often speak to the Korean-born Lee with what limited Korean he knew and that the owner’s presence and gentle personality filled the shop.
“He set the tone for the entire shop,” Primus said.
His death was acutely felt given the circumstances of his death. The gas leak was reported Wednesday at 9:38 a.m., the Durham Fire Department reported. Durham fire chief Robert Zoldos said eight to 10 people were inside the coffee shop when firefighters went into buildings in the area to evacuate people.
“Without the incredible work of our firefighters to get them out immediately they also would have perished inside the building,” Zoldos said.
But Lee declined to leave his business, Zoldos said. As a firefighter went to get law enforcement to help remove him, the building collapsed, he said.
That was about a half-hour after the leak was first reported. At some point in the chaos, and just a few minutes before the blast, a post appeared on Kaffeinate’s Facebook page, at 10:05 a.m., saying the shop would be closed “due to circumstances beyond our control.”
“The last we heard from our dad, he called us to tell us there was a gas leak outside and to let our staff and customers know we would be closed for the day,” they wrote. “He was going to close up and make a sign to put on our door in case anybody came by later. He took such good care of the shop and was so proud of it.”
Helping owner and family
The community is coming together to help the Lee family as well as other restaurant workers damaged in the blast.
A GoFundMe campaign was set up Thursday by Callie Brauel, who identified herself as a friend of Diana Lee’s. The fundraiser has brought in more than $45,000 for the family in just a few hours and by Saturday had raised $125,000.
A second campaign established by a student at Durham School of the Arts — down the street from the shop — has raised more than $3,600 since it launched Wednesday. And a third organized by the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, where Diana Lee is a student, launched Friday, so far raising more than $18,000. A website has also been launched with links to all three fundraisers, as well as a message board for condolences.
Brauel said she organized the fundraiser to ease the stress on the family during its time of mourning, but the fund has grown into a focal point for the community to express its grief.
“Just yesterday, I was in line at Kinkos and I heard a customer say Mr. Lee gave him free hot chocolate and waffles when he didn’t have his wallet on him,” Brauel said in a text message. “(Mr. Lee) clearly loved his community and everyone who entered his shop’s door.”
The Lees’ future is uncertain at this time, the family wrote in their statement. The restaurant was their only source of income.
“A lot of this still seems unreal, including the outpouring of love and support from our community,” they wrote. “Thank you to everyone who is guiding us through this time. We admit this is all new territory for us and are not quite sure what comes after.”
The Lee said their store will be closed indefinitely until they can “one day be able to rebuild and reopen and bring his memory back to life.”
“It always was and always will be for our dad,” they wrote.
The Kaffeinate website said the family has owned businesses in the Triangle since the early 1990s. Among those ventures, Lee owned a dry cleaning business and mortgage brokerage prior to opening Kaffeinate two years ago, according to business filings with the state.
The world spins quickly on the block of North Duke Street, often used as a quick cut through to North Durham. Thursday, that block remained frozen by the tragedy, with many recounting why the coffee shop became more than just a place to get coffee.
The coffee shop helped other local businesses grow, including Caballo Rojo, a Durham coffee roaster. Owner Gabriella Kavanaugh told The News & Observer that coffee had been sold at the city’s farmer’s market. But Kaffeinate was the first shop to sell the coffee, taking a chance on the company during a two-month residency last year.
“Their shop has been widely successful and influential with the downtown community,” Kavanaugh said. “They were one of the first shops to feature my coffee and have been really sweet to me. It’s a very sad loss. My husband and I and our staff are praying for their family.”
Customer Tai Renwei Chung told The Herald-Sun that he and Lee “hit it off right away when I moved here last November.”
With less than 3% of North Carolina’s population made up of Asian Americans, Chung said in an email that he surprised to find a fellow Asian American owned the shop.
“In one of our first conversations, Mr. Lee told me about a great local grocery store where I could pick up some kimchi,” Chung wrote. “When I visited the grocery store, I made sure to bring him back some kimchi.“
Chung said he considered Lee a “fatherly figure,” almost like family. And he visited the shop on Christmas Eve, when he was on his own. His fiance and family were in Texas and Hawaii, but he had to stay in town for work. Kaffeinate was open when other businesses were closed.
“So, on Christmas Eve, I made a dim sum and dumpling plate, and was sure to stop by his coffee shop to drop off the food plate to him,” Chung wrote. “I considered him family.”
Primus was fond of Lee in the same way. He was often at the shop around 10 a.m., stopping by after dropping off his kids at school and regularly holding meetings there. He said his father died two weeks ago, and he felt a similar feeling when he heard the news that one person had died in the explosion — and that Lee had not been accounted for.
“You don’t want to deal with the reality that you feel subtly,” Primus said. “You just hope it isn’t that really kind person that you know.”
Staff writers Lynn Bonner and Joe Johnson contributed to this story.