One early citizen responder to Durham gas explosion shares his story
Jason Sholtz smelled the gas long before he heard the explosion. The air in downtown Durham was thick with the odor, enough to make him lightheaded.
So when the blast shook the air in Durham, Sholtz knew in a second the gas had ignited.
Within minutes, as Sholtz headed toward victims, a crowd of injured Duke University employees filed out of the building next door. One of them, Jim Rogalski, snapped this picture, which circulated widely enough that one of Sholtz’ friends contacted The News & Observer reporter and identified him.
Here is Sholtz’ account of the immediate aftermath, given to the N&O on Wednesday night:
Sholtz, 38, was less than two blocks from the scene, making deliveries to a client for SociaBull Coffee Co.
When he reached the blast site on Duke Street, he found a woman trapped inside her car with the air bag inflated, cut by shrapnel and glass. So he ripped the air bag upward and pulled her out, sitting her down away from the wreckage.
“It’s what I’d want somebody to do for me,” Sholtz said. “I just wanted to help. She was cut up pretty bad.”
Even before the explosion, Sholtz had seen firetrucks in the area, working to repair the gas leak he’d smelled. After the explosion, he saw of the firefighters was lying on the ground, not moving.
He ran to help and either ran into or grabbed another man who was heavily bleeding. He couldn’t tell in the confusion. But he ended up dragging the injured man away from the scene. As he did, Sholtz saw the man was badly burned — enough that his utility worker’s vest had melted.
At this point, Sholtz said, workers started to file out of the Duke University office across the street, many of them bleeding from windows that had exploded. That’s when Rogalski snapped a photo of Sholtz standing in the street with his hand on his head, debris and rubble around him. By the end of Wednesday, it was one of the most shared images from the explosion.
Sholtz emphasized that many other people were helping. He says he just accidentally became one of the most visible.
Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos, in fact, described a scene of Good Samaritans helping the wounded for blocks around the ruined building. “There was a lot of people helping in the street,” he said Thursday at a press conference, “which is normal for an emergency like this.”
Sholtz helped some of the Duke employees away from the scene and returned to the burned man. Sholtz had abandoned his car and left his phone inside, so he borrowed the injured man’s phone and asked who to call.
Sholtz dialed the man’s wife and got no answer. So he tried the mother’s number and got through.
“He was bad,” Sholtz said. “He also started saying he was a diabetic.”
As emergency crews filled the scene, Sholtz, who was unhurt, left the area on foot. He couldn’t get to his car.
“It’s not something you ever think will happen to you,” he said. “Then it does, and you do what you’ve got to do. It puts things in perspective. All you’ve got is life. The most precious thing.”