Durham officials update public and offer sympathy to family of gas explosion fatality
“Are you seeing this?” read one of the many texts that bombarded my phone Wednesday morning.
A gas-line explosion had just blown up the building that my favorite coffee shop, Kaffeinate, was located in. When I got out of my morning meeting, I began streaming the live video of the firemen aiming to extinguish the flames.
I sat in disbelief as I stared at the ruins. It all felt so surreal. I left work at lunch to pick up my dog and walk over to the rubble. Even witnessing the scene unfold at ground zero, I still couldn’t believe what was happening.
Since I relocated to Durham, from Austin, Texas, I have spent countless hours writing Above the Law articles in Mr. Lee’s establishment. Mr. Lee, the owner of the coffee shop, and I hit it off right away when I moved here last November. I was aware Asian Americans are less than 3% of North Carolina’s population, so I was rather surprised when such a hip spot and prime local joint was owned by one.
In one of our first conversations, Mr. Lee told me about a great local grocery store where I could pick up some kimchi. When I visited the grocery store, I made sure to bring him back some.
On Christmas Eve, he was one of the few establishments open. My fiancé and family still reside in Texas and Hawaii, respectively, and I had to stay in town to close a deal at work. So, on Christmas Eve, I made a dim sum and dumpling plate, and was sure to stop by his coffee shop to drop off the food plate to him.
I recently marked the fifth anniversary of my own dad’s passing. Mr. Lee was a fatherly figure in the community, and I considered him family.
The Durham School of Arts, serving sixth to 12th grade students, is located just down the street from Kaffeinate. Every morning, I witnessed children of all backgrounds get dropped off at the coffee shop and get some breakfast or hot cocoa on their way to school. In the afternoons, the café would often serve Duke University students working on papers or cramming for the next test. On the weekends, I met other young professionals, attorneys, medical and law students, artists and writers, and parents of all backgrounds with their kids.
There were few local establishments that were so welcoming to everyone. The fact that I could write and eat waffles, all with my yellow lab “Izza” by my side always warmed my heart. Like myself, Mr. Lee was a dog lover and owner. As the weather got warmer, Mr. Lee set out a table with a few chairs on the sidewalk. It became Izza’s sunbathing spot. But on this fateful morning, a contractor would puncture a 2-inch gas line below this sidewalk, which would cause the catastrophe.
The way Mr. Lee conducted business was a textbook case on how to foster a diverse community and promote inclusion. He once asked me about a red sign he saw one day: “First, they came for the immigrants…” I informed him what it meant and how I wrote about these issues often for The Dallas Morning News and Above the Law.
After that conversation, he always asked me what I was working on. I would always respond: “Protecting us immigrants.”
I spent a few hours at ground zero Wednesday talking to others who were also in disbelief. It felt as if we were at a wake. After spending so many mornings at Kaffeinate and with Mr. Lee. We were now mourning Kaffeinate and possibly Mr. Lee. One dead, not yet identified. Seventeen injured, including a fireman, and six in critical condition.
I decided to go for a walk around the path that surrounds Duke’s East Campus when I saw @kaffeinatenc’s Instagram post: “Thank you for all your love and support. We are still looking for Mr. Lee. We will update when we have more news but also please ask that you respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”
Then I read a witness’s statement: “I was sitting at the traffic light ... and I smelled heavy, heavy gas. There were people in the building. I saw a business owner put a sign that said ‘Business is closed for the day because of a gas leak.’ As soon as I went through the traffic light, the whole building exploded.”
My heart sank.
Knowing Mr. Lee, I would bet he made sure everyone left the building and everything was secure before he closed his shop. He was one of the few retail businesses with a prominent window on that block of Duke Street.
As I write this, we still don’t know the victim’s ID. I pray for Mr. Lee, Kaffeinate’s staff, and the remaining people involved. If it was Mr. Lee who lost his life, the Durham community will never be the same. If it was Mr. Lee who passed away, he passed away doing what he loved: serving and fostering an amazing community. If it is Mr. Lee’s family who has to plan a funeral, then I hope we can all have a chance to let them know how much he meant to us here in the neighborhood.
I hope this writing serves as a proper tribute to a wonderful man, father, and Durham citizen. No matter the news, Mr. Lee and Kaffeinate’s legacy will forever be remembered in the Durham community.