Owner of downtown coffee shop identified as person killed in Durham explosion

Durham County News
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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN/AP) – The person killed in the Wednesday morning explosion in downtown Durham was identified as 61-year-old Kong Lee, according to a release from Durham police.

Lee was the owner of the Kaffeinate coffee shop, which was the site of the explosion.

There were 17 more people injured in the explosion, police said.

The explosion happened Wednesday morning following a gas leak that occurred on N. Duke Street.

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.

The explosion directly involved five buildings. 

Officials said there could still be people in the collapsed building. 

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

Lee died as a result of the explosion and at least 17 people were transported to the hospital, including a firefighter who was seriously injured. A Dominion Energy employee was also injured.

Durham police said just before 6 p.m. that the injured firefighter “is out of surgery at this time and is recovering from his injuries.”

“The scene is now being handled as a search and rescue operation,” police added.

Durham EMS said 17 patients were transported to local hospitals.

Six victims were in critical condition and one was taken to the UNC Burn Center.

Authorities said the building where the explosion occurred is partially collapsed and the building across the street is damaged as well.

Students from a nearby school, the Durham School of the Arts, were evacuated and classes dismissed for the day.

“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.”

Police Chief C.J. Davis said part of downtown will be closed as the investigation and cleanup continues. 

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 explosion happened in a shopping district created from remodeled tobacco warehouses and industrial buildings near downtown Durham.

The building 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 released a statement regarding the explosion:

PSNC Energy crews are on the scene of an emergency incident on 117 N. Duke Street in Durham. A PSNC Energy employee responded to a call about a third-party damage to a natural gas line and the explosion occurred shortly thereafter.

Additional PSNC Energy crews arrived at the scene at approximately 10:26 a.m. and shut off the flow of gas to the area at approximately 11:10 a.m. We are working closely with local emergency response and county officials.

Dominion Energy’s thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families. We are continuing to work with emergency officials on scene and updates will be issued when more information is available.

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 & Taproom at 900 W. Main St. to get a hotel voucher. Vouchers can be picked up beginning at 8 a.m. Thursday.

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