Durham County

Deadly Durham gas explosion ruled accident, report says

Emergency radio traffic sketches out sequence of events in Durham explosion

Fire and police radio traffic give the sequence of events leading up to the gas explosion at 115 N. Duke St. in Durham, NC on April 10, 2019.
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Fire and police radio traffic give the sequence of events leading up to the gas explosion at 115 N. Duke St. in Durham, NC on April 10, 2019.

The Durham Fire Department has concluded the April 10 explosion that killed two people and injured 25 others was an accident.

The report follows a three-month investigation in which more than 25 people were interviewed, and numerous 911 calls and video tapes were reviewed.

It found a contractor ruptured a natural gas line five feet from Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee’s door and that gas flowed for one hour. It found no evidence that anyone from the contractor’s crew called 911.

The explosion at the coffee shop building at 115 North Duke St. occurred when “a gas service line was struck during a horizontal boring operation,” the report found. “This breach allowed fugitive gas to flow until reaching an ignition source, at which time an explosion occurred resulting in severely damaged and destroyed buildings.”

The natural gas line was struck by Optic Cable Technology, according to the report.

The subsequent explosion destroyed the building containing two business: Kaffeinate and Prescient. A number of nearby properties were also significantly damaged, the report says.

Kaffeinate owner, PSNC worker killed

Investigators concluded that Lee, who died in the explosion, and the contractor’s three workers “were aware of the gas leak moments after the breach” and before the first 911 call was received, the report says.

His death was “attributed to the failure to act by Mr. Lee,” the report says. His body was found trapped by a support beam that fell in the explosion, according to the report.

Security video from before the explosion shows Lee exiting the coffee shop four times, the report says.

Video shows him talking with the workers and “fanning his hands by his nose to suggest the presence of an offensive or foul smell,” the report says.

The second fatality was Jay Rambeaut, a PSNC worker responding to the gas leak who died two weeks later. He was found outside of Kaffeinate, his body thrown about 20 feet by the force of the explosion, the report says.

No 911 calls were received from any workers from Optic Cable Technology or occupants of 115 N. Duke St., the report says.

It also concluded that the gas was ignited by an “undetermined source within 115 Duke Street leading to the explosion,” and that there was no “evidence of criminal intent by any company or individual to warrant criminal prosecution.”

Investigators estimated more than 46,000 cubic feet of gas flowed during the hour before the explosion, the report says.

In a video from our news gathering partner ABC11, see the Durham gas explosion that occurred in April 2019 as seen from a Carolina Livery bus and hear from the bus's driver, Rich Meyers.

811 and 911 calls

The report says a 3/4-inch gas service line was breached at approximately 9:06 a.m.

State law requires a contractor to contact North Carolina 811 — the nonprofit that connects people who dig underground to utility companies to mark underground lines — as soon as an underground pipe is struck. 811 wasn’t notified until 9:31 a.m., according to a Dominion report to federal investigations.

The first 911 call occurred at approximately 9:11 a.m. in the vicinity of 401 North Duke St. from a passing driver, according to the report

The caller told investigators “the smell of gas ‘engulfed her car” with all the windows up.” She said the smell continued to be prevalent as she drove toward Morgan Street, but she did not know its source.

The Durham Fire Department was dispatched.

Firefighters did not detect any gas during their lap of the area, according to the report. The engine crew attributed the call to a gas pressure relief valve at Duke and Morgan streets on the rear of the Duke Research Laboratory, the report says.

Another 911 call was received at approximately 9:37 a.m. from Don Smith, owner of PS Splicing, LLC, the report says.

The report says fire and EMS personnel encountered Smith, who directed them to the location of the gas leak.

Firefighters went in Kaffeinate shortly after arriving on scene. They used used a gas meter and recognized an immediate hazard, the report says. They began evacuating the business.

At approximately 10:06 a.m., a large explosion with a total building collapse and fire occurred, the report says.

It will likely take some time to determine the full financial fallout from Wednesday’s deadly gas explosion in downtown Durham that left one person dead and more than two dozen others injured. More than $100 million worth of property was damaged.

More reports to come

Three additional reports about the explosion are currently in progress. Investigators expect them to be released later this fall.

The Durham City-County Emergency Management Department after-action report will review the total incident response from a strategic perspective.

The Durham Fire Department After-Action Report will review the tactical response of the department.

The N.C. Utilities Commission, which is the regulatory agency overseeing the accident investigation, will issue a report covering the utility companies and the circumstances leading to the accident.

An excavator removes debris at the site of as deadly gas explosion in Durham on May 1, 2019. Two people died and more than 20 were injured in the explosion caused by a gas leak on Duke Street on April 10, 2019.

A memorial service for Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate who was killed in Durham's gas explosion, was held at New Horizon Church on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. His daughter Diana spoke at length about her loving father, her brother Raymond by her side.

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