After deadly explosion, Durham leaders mark 150th anniversary, salute first responders

The party to kick off Durham’s 150th anniversary celebration this weekend was initially designed for pure fun. On Saturday, however, just 72 hours after a deadly explosion rocked the city, it pivoted to honor emergency responders and casualties.

Fire Chief Robert Zoldos and Dr. Anjni Joiner, EMS medical director, shared a stage with Mayor Steve Schewel for a period of silence to remember Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee and the 25 people who were injured, and their families. Lee died Wednesday after a gas leak led to the downtown explosion and fire.

Attendees were handed stickers shaped like ribbons that said “Bull City Strong.”

“We all know Durham’s had a tough week,” Schewel said, describing the emergency scene Wednesday where EMTs were treating injured people, and firefighters — some of whom had been knocked off their feet in the explosion — had their hoses trained on flames.

Nine firefighters were injured in the explosion in front of 115 N. Duke Street.

All of the injured firefighters are going to be all right, Zoldos said. The most seriously injured, Darren Wheeler, is home from the hospital and eager to get back to work, Zoldos said.

Schewel said as he stood at the scene of the fire he felt “a definite sense of tragedy and loss” as well as gratitude and pride watching the first responders.

“It was a very difficult time and a sad time, but a time to be proud, also,” he said.

Joiner, who attended high school in Durham and did her medical training at Duke, said “our community banded together in this time of need.”

Joiner recently returned to Durham from Atlanta and became EMS medical director seven months ago.

“Although Durham has changed significantly from the nearly 20 years ago that I first lived here, there is a reason why I keep returning to this city as evidenced by the incredible support that we’ve received from citizens and businesses throughout the city ,” she said. “Durham has character, passion, and a true sense of community.”

Saturday’s was the kind of event where attendees asked both the fire chief and Durham Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull to pose for pictures.

Alyson Barnes, a 23-year-old doctoral student at Duke who attended the celebration, said the past week “has shown how strong the community is.”

Over the next few months, festivals and art and history exhibits will be dedicated to Durham’s anniversary celebration.

The city was incorporated in April 1869 and was known for tobacco manufacturing, and in the early 20th century for an African-American business district called Black Wall Street. Durham is now part of the Research Triangle Park tech hub and is known for its food scene, boutique hotels, and one of the nation’s most successful performing arts centers of its size and type in the Durham Performing Arts Center, The Herald-Sun has reported.

Durham is also becoming a more expensive place to live. Rents are rising faster than the national average, The News & Observer reported. Rising home prices are squeezing out people with moderate incomes, The Herald-Sun has reported.

“We have a great future ahead and we also have a lot of challenges,” Schewel said.

“We need to make sure that as this city becomes more and more prosperous, that everybody gets to share in our new found prosperity,” he said. “We need everybody to be able to share in the wonders of Durham.”

In an interview, Schewel said it was hard on Wednesday to think about celebrating.

“Now, it’s easier to think about celebrating because our city has really come together to support those families and I know will continue to,” he said. “And at the same time, we have these wonderful first responders, and are also celebrating the incredible work that they have done to save lives. They saved many, many lives that day.”