Durham fire chief sheds light on moments leading up to deadly downtown explosion

Durham County News
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Charred remains are piled in a heap of rubble, Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Durham, N.C., the day after an explosion and building fire caused by a gas leak killed one person and injured more than two dozen, including nine firefighters. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Crews continued to comb through the rubble on N. Duke Street Thursday, looking for clues as to what might have sparked an explosion that killed one person and injured 25 others.

Durham Fire Chief Bob Zoldos shed light on what happened in the moments before Wednesday’s blast, but said learning what triggered the explosion could take some time.

“It is truly a painstaking, very slow way of doing business, but it is necessary for us to get to the truth of that. It’s going to take a while for us to get to that conclusion,” he said.

On Thursday, crews brought search dogs to scour through the wreckage for anyone trapped, but the dogs didn’t find anything, Zoldos said. They have now moved to a recovery operation.

Nine of those injured Wednesday were firefighters. Zoldos said Firefighter Wheeler, who was the most seriously hurt was slated to be released from the hospital Thursday.

Zoldos said that as soon as firefighters learned a contractor hit a gas line while working on N. Duke Street Wednesday morning, they began evacuating the area. Zoldos said that included about eight to 10 people who were inside Kaffeinate Cafe.

However, the owner, Kong Lee, didn’t want to leave. The 61-year-old was killed in the blast.

“The owner decided he did not want to evacuate. Our engine captain went to find a police officer to enforce that evacuation order. That is when the building exploded and collapsed,” Zoldos said.

Aaron Wasser said he was walking to the cafe Wednesday when he heard an explosion.

“We heard a really big blast. Didn’t have any idea what was going on, even after I saw smoke,” he said. “People were injured on the ground. Everyone was walking out of the buildings dazed.”

Wasser said he visited the coffee shop a few times each week and said he often saw Lee inside.

“He seemed like a really nice, great guy, and it’s really sad to hear what happened,” Wasser said.

Deputy city manager Bo Ferguson said Fiber Technology, LLC had a valid permit to be performing work on N. Duke Street. However, Ferguson said Fiber Technology may have hired a subcontractor, so it was unclear who was physically on working at the site Wednesday morning.

Fiber Technology, LLC. was recently acquired by Crown Castle. In a statement Crown Castle said:

We are devastated by this tragic event and its impact on the Durham community. We grieve the loss of life and our continued prayers go out to the people who were injured and their families. We are grateful for the first responders whose brave actions saved lives.

Fibertech Networks, which is owned by Crown Castle, hired a contractor who was installing fiber in the area prior to the incident. We have offered our full support and cooperation to Durham city officials. We are committed to working with the Mayor’s office to help the community recover.

– Cathy Piche, Area President, Crown Castle

Lee’s children, Diana and Raymond, posted a photo on Instagram Friday morning to thank everyone for the outpouring of support and to show their love for their father.

“He had the biggest, purest heart out of anyone we know,” the children wrote of their father. “The family we created at Kaffeinate made him so happy. We watched your smiles give him strength and joy.”

Diana and Raymond went on to thank their customers and those who have shown their support in recent days.

“Thank you to the EMS, firefighters, police and everyone else who helped during the crisis.”

Here is a link to the GoFundMe for the Lee family.

Here is a link to the Bully City Rebuilds GoFundMe campaign.

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

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