Crews combing over scene of massive Durham explosion that killed 1, injured 25

Durham County News
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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — The smoke has cleared and blue skies and sunshine could be seen Thursday morning at the site of a massive gas explosion in Durham that killed one person and injured 25 on Wednesday.

The scene is much less chaotic today than it was Wednesday beginning around 9:40 a.m. when a gas leak was first reported at 115 N. Duke Street. 

The Durham School of the Arts will remain closed Friday, school officials said.

Around 10:15 a.m., a huge explosion rocked downtown Durham and sent thick, black smoke billowing into the sky. The smoke could be seen for miles and actually showed up on Doppler radar in the CBS 17 weather center.

Durham police said that Durham firefighters were sent to a gas leak call in the 100-block of N. Duke Street at 9:38 a.m. A contractor was boring under the sidewalk and struck a 2-inch gas line.

At 10:07 a.m., Dominion Energy and the Durham Fire Department were investigating the leak when the explosion happened, police said.

Durham City Manager Bo Ferguson said it’s not clear whether or not the utilities had been marked prior to the contractors beginning their work that resulted in the explosion.

The explosion directly involved five buildings. Fifteen buildings in total were damaged, authorities said Thursday morning.

The building where the explosion occurred has been decimated and much of it is now rubble. Four other buildings were damaged, some heavily.

The SBI, ATF, and OSHA are assisting in the investigation.

The blast resulted in the death of Kong Lee, 61, and injured 25, including six critically. One was taken to the UNC Burn Center. Of the 25 injured, nine were firefighters, officials said.

Duke University Hospital officials said on Thursday that five patients remained at the hospital with two in critical condition, two in serious condition, and one who had been updated from critical to good condition.

Lee was inside his coffee shop, Kaffeinate, at the time of the blast, officials said. Along with Lee were eight to 10 other people. Officials said that if not for great work by the firefighters, those along with Lee also would have perished inside the building.

One of the firefighters, Darren Wheeler, was seriously injured and taken into surgery. Durham police said around 6 p.m. Wednesday that Wheeler was out of surgery and recovering from his injuries.

“We’ve had a terrible tragedy today,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “I feel a real sense of loss and of grief. It’s a very difficult day in that way. But I feel something else as well, and that is a tremendous sense of gratitude. I saw firefighters with their hoses, fighting that fire not knowing if there was another potential gas explosion.”

Durham police said part of downtown will remain closed as crews perform search and rescue operations, as well as an investigation and cleanup.

Duke University employee Mary Williams told the AP she heard the explosion and felt shaking at her building a third of a mile away.

“I was in the kitchen. I heard this loud boom and the building shook. When I looked out, I saw the smoke billowing up. I was scared for whoever was in the vicinity because it did not look very good.”

Another Duke employee in the same building, Sharon Caple, said the sky darkened in the minutes afterward.

“All you saw was this black smoke,” she said.

Fergus Bradley owns Maverick’s Steakhouse on W. Main Street. He was in his car when he heard the blast.

“Honestly it was so powerful that I thought a bomb had gone off,” he said.

Bradley ran through the rubble to try and help.

“When I emerged on Duke Street through the building, there were people bloodied on the street. People being dragged out of the building.  It was awful,” he said.

Justin Tipper and his wife live off of N. Duke Street. By Thursday afternoon they were able to return to their apartment to gather what they could, but the building isn’t safe to stay in.

“It blew the windows open. Part of our ceiling started coming down.  We evacuated immediately,” said Tipper.

Not only the Tipper’s home, but their business was also damaged. The couple own Ramblers wine and beer shop on Fuller Street.

“This is something that nobody prepares for. Especially when you have a business and your apartment are both right next door to where the incident happened,” he said.

The building where the explosion occurred is occupied by Prescient Co., which said in July 2017 that it was moving its headquarters from Arvada, Colorado, and expected to employ about 60 executives, engineering and sales workers in Durham. The company uses specialized software to design and build precise materials that allow builders to assemble multi-story apartments, hotels and other commercial buildings faster and cheaper.

Prescient issued the following statement to CBS 17: “We are grateful to the first responders and are working closely with the local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with all who were affected by today’s incident.”

Dominion Energy also said it is working to provide assistance to residents and business owners impacted by the explosion. It is offering meals and lodging.  

Police said Wednesday night that West Village Toms Warehouse, a residential building near the site of the explosion, is not habitable.

Residents who need a place to stay can visit Dominion Energy’s Claims Operations Center located at Maverick’s Smokehouse and Taproom at 900 W. Main St. to get a hotel voucher.

People can also contact Dominion at 1-877-592-7762.

According to the Durham Fire Department, the following roads remain closed Thursday:

Duke Street from Chapel Hill Street to Fernway Avenue
Main Street from Gregson Street to Fuller Street
Morgan Street from Gregson Street to Fuller Street

Nearly a dozen roads were closed in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

A business owner who works across the street from the explosion told CBS 17 that police told her she could work in her building Thursday morning but they may need to evacuate her later in the day due to concerns about stress fractures in the gas lines.

Two GoFundMe campaigns were set up for families and businesses that were impacted by the explosion. Click here to help the family of Kong Lee. You can learn more about the main campaign to help those impacted here.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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