Contractor lost eye, took ‘brunt of blast’ in deadly Durham gas explosion

A fiber contractor and a gas-company worker who were critically injured in last week’s explosion in downtown Durham have a long recovery ahead of them, friends and colleagues said Monday.

Don Smith, chief executive officer of Oxford-based PS Splicing, is being treated in the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Rodney Fields, vice president of PS Splicing, confirmed Smith’s injuries by phone Monday.

“He’s stable, but that’s about it,” Fields said. “He’s got a long way to go.”

“He lost part of his ear, lost his eye, 45 percent of his body was burned, broken ribs, collapsed lung, and his shoulder’s tore up pretty bad,” Fields said. “He took the brunt of the blast.”

Smith was on site Wednesday morning to see how the installation of fiber lines was going outside the Prescient Building at 115 N. Duke St., but he was not doing the work, Fields said.

Once the evacuation started, Fields said, Smith started helping people get to safety. That’s when the gas line exploded.

“He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Fields said.

Jay Rambeaut, an employee with Dominion (PSNC) Gas, also was injured in the blast as he tried to stop the gas leak, according to a GoFundMe campaign launched Saturday. Rambeaut was taken to Duke University Hospital and placed in a medically induced coma, said Donna Jackson, who created the fundraiser.

“Doctors have told the family of broken ribs, fractured sternum, and injuries to his right eye and ear,” Jackson wrote. “Burns were limited to his right arm. Doctors told his family to expect a left side deficit due to a brain injury as well.”

A Dominion Energy spokesman provided a statement but declined to comment on Rambeaut’s employment with the company.

“All of us at Dominion Energy are pulling for our co-worker as he continues to receive treatment for his injuries. His family has asked for privacy and we hope the media will join us in respecting their wishes,” the statement said. “We are thankful that the Triangle is home to best-in-class medical professionals who are providing care to one of our own and we are committed to supporting his family through his recovery.”

The blast killed Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee, 61, and injured 25 people, including nine firefighters.

Four people remain hospitalized.

In addition to Smith and Rambeaut, a UNC Health Care spokesman said Monday that one person hospitalized after the blast was in good condition and another was in serious condition.

WRAL reported Friday that someone from PS Splicing reported the damaged gas line to North Carolina 811 at 9:28 a.m. Wednesday. A 911 recording released Friday shows the first call reporting the gas leak — from a person working on or near the site — came in at 9:37 a.m.

State law requires contractors to immediately report gas-line breaks to 911, NC811 and the operator of the work site. It also requires contractors to “take reasonable measures” to make sure people are safe until emergency responders can assess the damage.

In the 911 recording, the caller asked the operator to send someone to secure the area of North Duke Street between Main and Morgan streets because a worker had hit a gas service. The caller said NC811 also had been notified and was trying to contact the gas company.

“We smell it,” the caller told the operator. “It’s a gas service, one of the 3/4-inch. I don’t think it’s completely in two, but we can smell it.”

City officials redacted the caller’s name and phone number before releasing the 911 recording. City spokeswoman Beverly Thompson said the city is not identifying the company whose worker called 911.

“Our agreement is with the permit holder. The permit holder is Tower Engineering, which acquired Utilis,” Thompson said. “We don’t have any relationship with the company that was on the ground. We don’t have anything in writing.”

Multiple contractors

Documents and interviews have revealed multiple contractors and subcontractors related to the project.

A statement last week from Fibertech Networks, which is owned by Crown Castle, confirmed the company had hired a contractor to install fiber in the area. Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson has said the company had the necessary business license and permit.

An engineering company called Utilis, a subsidiary of Raleigh-based Tower Engineering, was responsible for submitting the permit and managing the work site, city officials said. The permit was valid from June 27, 2018, to June 21, 2019.

The permit describes the excavation work as necessary to “connect cell towers to aerial antennas on power poles.”

A spokeswoman for Tower Engineering and Utilis declined to comment Friday.

PS Splicing was established in 2000, according to the company’s website. N.C. Secretary of State records list Don and Patsy Smith as the company’s managers. Patsy Smith is Don Smith’s wife, according to his Facebook page.

It’s not clear if PS Splicing was installing the fiber or had hired another subcontractor to do the work. Efforts to ask Fields if the company had hired another company were unsuccessful Monday.

The company’s website notes PS Splicing is not always the primary contractor on a project, but its employees “are very comfortable and capable of employing as many as 300+ people and managing multiple contracts.” The site also notes that subcontractors working for PS Splicing are required to be either a limited liability company or incorporated, and to be fully insured.

A search of federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration records does not show any incidents involving PS Splicing in the last five years.

Help for businesses, employees

Durham businesses and employees affected by the gas explosion can get information this week about support services.

Business owners, including home-based business owners at West Village, nonprofits and freelancers, can meet with business counselors at Durham Tech’s Small Business Center at The Chesterfield Building, 701 W. Main St., from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Thursday, April 18.

Employees and employers can also receive assistance from 9 to 5 p.m. through Wednesday, April 17, at the NCWorks Career Center, 1105 S. Briggs Ave.

Staff writer Zachery Eanes contributed to this report.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.