Durham coffee shop owner remained inside as others evacuated, fire chief says

Update: This story has been updated to include information from a Friday morning post on the Kaffeinate Facebook page as well as a response from engineering firm Utilis.

A coffee shop owner who died in Wednesday’s deadly gas explosion did not leave his business when firefighters told everyone inside to get out, the city’s fire chief said Thursday.

Firefighters responded to the reported gas leak on North Duke Street at 9:38 a.m., Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said Thursday. Firefighters had to determine the severity of the gas leak before giving evacuation orders to surrounding buildings, he said.

In an interview, Zoldos said a fire captain reached the Kaffeinate coffee shop around 10:04 a.m. About 10 employees and patrons immediately left.

“Without the incredible work of our firefighters to get them out immediately they would have also perished inside the building,” Zoldos said.

The firefighter who had given the evacuation order went to get police help to remove owner Kong Lee, Zoldos said

“And that is when the building exploded and collapsed,” he said.

The shop posted a note on its Facebook page at 10:05 a.m. Wednesday saying it was closed for the day. The Fire Department said the explosion happened at 10:07 a.m.

Early Friday, the family posted another note on the shop’s Facebook page saying that Lee wanted to put a sign on the door saying the shop would be closed.

“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,” the Facebook post said. “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.”

Zoldos said the firefighter who gave the evacuation order is still “shook up” by Lee’s death.

Kong Lee (middle), owned Kaffeinate coffee shop in Durham and died in the explosion that destroyed the shop Wednesday, April 10, 2019. He is pictured with daughter Diana and son Raymond. Kaffeinate/Instagram



Injuries25, including 9 firefighters. At least 2 still in critical condition.
Deaths1 confirmed: Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee
LocationNear 115 N. Duke St., near downtown Durham
CauseGas leak in area suspected
RespondingArea and state emergency teams, federal agencies
Buildings damagedAt least 15

Buildings damaged

Search and cadaver dogs found no additional casualties in the rubble of the explosion that also injured 25 people, including nine firefighters, authorities said at a Thursday news conference.

At least 15 buildings near Brightleaf Square were damaged, Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Iannuzzi said.

The pipe belonged to PSNC Energy, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy. The company was not working on the pipe but said it was called in to turn off the gas after a third party damaged a natural gas line, according to a PSNC news release.

The gas company’s first employee arrived at 10:03 a.m. The explosion injured the employee before the worker could turn off the gas, a PSNC spokesman told The News & Observer. A second PSNC crew arrived around 10:26 a.m. and the gas was shut off at approximately 11:10 a.m., the spokesman said.

With the gas still on, Zoldos said firefighters had to let the fire burn or risk the gas building back up and causing another explosion. He said the flames made the rescue operation “much more difficult.”

PSNC properly marked the location of its gas lines before any digging was done on North Duke Street, said Rodney Blevins, president and CEO of Dominion’s Southeast Energy Group.

Blevins said PSNC’s response to the leak was appropriate, according to a preliminary investigation.

Fiber company named

The city named the fiber company working in the area for the first time Thursday.

At the press conference, city officials named the permit acquirer as Fiber Technologies Network and said it was a subsidiary of Crown Castle.

In a statement Fibertech Networks, which is owned by Crown Castle, confirmed it had hired a contractor to install fiber in the area.

The company had the required business license and permit to work in the city, Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said.

Fibertech hired the engineering company Utilis to submit the permit and manage the work site, Ferguson said. Engineering companies typically hire a subcontractor to do the work, but he said the city had not yet been able to confirm if one had been hired for the work on North Duke Street.

Utilis was acquired by Raleigh-based Tower Engineering last year. A spokeswoman for both companies said that Utilis won’t be commenting on the incident at this time.

The initial permit was issued on June 27, 2018, and runs through June 21 of this year.

In a statement, Cathy Piche, area president of Crown Castle, said the company was devastated by the explosion and its impact on the Durham community.

“We grieve the loss of life, and our continued prayers go out to the people who were injured and their families,” she said. “We are grateful for the first responders whose brave actions saved lives.”

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Search and rescue crews worked around the clock to make sure no one was trapped under the rubble of the collapsed building on Duke St. after a gas explosion collapsed the building on Wednesday. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

‘We couldn’t rescue everybody’

On Wednesday officials said 17 people were injured, including firefighter Darren Wheeler, who underwent surgery later that day.

On Thursday they increased the total number of people injured to 25.

Iannuzzi said six firefighters suffered injuries from the impact of the blast and flying debris as they went door to door.

Those firefighters continued to help victims — including pulling Wheeler and two others to safety — and fight the fire despite their injuries, Zoldos said.

“They were victims of the explosions themselves,” he said. “All are doing great. They obviously are troubled by the fact we couldn’t rescue everybody.”

Among the injured were passengers on a Carolina Livery coach bus passing by on Duke Street, as well as people in neighboring office buildings.

Vincent E. Price, president of Duke University, said in a statement Wednesday eight school employees were hurt in the explosion.

On Wednesday, six people were taken to Duke University Hospital in critical condition. One was transferred to the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

On Thursday two of the five still at the hospital remained in critical condition, two were in serious condition and one was in good condition.

Another five people who were taken to Duke Regional Hospital on Wednesday had been treated and released, a spokeswoman said.

1920s-era building

Emergency officials reported the explosion happened at 115 N. Duke St., a 1920s-era building owned by 2050 Bentley LLC, according to Durham County property records. David Revere, on behalf of the company, expressed thoughts for those experiencing effects from the explosion.

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A member of the State Bureau of Investigations prepares to enter the collapsed structure with a search dog on Duke St. in Durham on Thursday, April 11, 2019. Search and rescue crews worked around the clock after fires were contained to make sure no one was trapped under the rubble after an explosion occurred Wednesday. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

“We are also grateful for the quick response and hard work of the brave men and women that responded to the accident scene yesterday,” Revere said in a statement sent Thursday to The News & Observer.

The second floor tenant of the building was Prescient, a construction technology company that moved to Durham from Colorado two years ago. Property records show the building had a tax value of $4.5 million.

“I am happy to report that all of our Prescient Co. employees were fortunate to have safely evacuated the building literally minutes before the explosion,” wrote Jerry Williams, the company’s regional vice president, in a Facebook post. “Thoughts and prayers still out to those affected by this tragedy.”

Durham School of the Arts closed Friday

Also Thursday, Durham Public Schools announced that Durham School of the Arts, at 400 N. Duke St., will be closed Friday.

“Thorough inspections show that the campus buildings are safe and secure ... extensive street closures for the emergency recovery operations in the neighborhood mean that DSA will have to remain closed on Friday,” a release said. “There will be no make-up day.”

DPS hopes to reopen the school Monday for either a half or full day.


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Staff writers Tammy Grubb and Mark Schultz contributed to this story.

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