Search-and-rescue teams are sifting through the rubble after an explosion Wednesday morning in downtown Durham left one person dead and 17 people injured, officials said.
Durham firefighters responded to a 911 call about an odor of gas in the 100 block of N. Duke St. at about 9:38 a.m. and then contacted Dominion Energy, Fire Chief Robert J. Zoldos II said. Crews had started evacuating five nearby buildings when the explosion happened at 10:07 a.m., he said.
The City of Durham identified the man who died in the blast as Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee, 61, in a late Wednesday news release from Public Affairs Manager Wil Glenn. Kaffeinate was one of the businesses destroyed at the blast site.
WHAT WE KNOW
|Injuries||17, with 6 in critical condition|
|Deaths||1 confirmed: Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee|
|Location||Near 115 N. Duke St., near downtown|
|Cause||Gas leak in area suspected|
|Responding||Area and state emergency teams, federal agencies|
|Buildings damaged||At least 5|
Initially, city officials said the explosion happened when a contractor digging under a sidewalk near 115 N. Duke St. hit a 2-inch pipe. They said later they were investigating the cause of the leak.
“Until the investigation is complete, we don’t know that’s the source of the gas leak,” said Bo Ferguson, a deputy city manager. The Durham County Fire Marshal is overseeing the investigation, he said.
The explosion sent flames and a plume of smoke high into the air and turned to rubble a building that was home to a coffee shop and a construction software company. Four other buildings were damaged, Zoldos said.
Businesses and restaurants in the area were evacuated, and students from nearby Durham School of the Arts were dismissed early.
Seven people were taken to Duke University Hospital, where six were in serious condition, said Lee Van Vleet, assistant chief of Durham County EMS. Five others were taken to Duke Regional, he said, and some were transported in private vehicles.
One person was being treated at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC, he said.
Darren Wheeler, a Durham firefighter, was injured in the blast, the city said. He underwent surgery Wednesday and is recovering. Zoldos had described Wheeler’s injuries as serious but not life-threatening.
A PSNC Energy employee was among those injured and taken to the hospital, Dominion said Wednesday evening.
Witnesses reported hearing and feeling a loud explosion that shattered window panes. Then chaos.
“People were sitting at their desks and ceiling tiles were falling,” said Jim Rogalski, who works in a Duke University office directly across Duke Street from the explosion. “Stuff flew off shelves. You could barely see for 25 feet from all the dust. People were screaming.”
It could take two days for rescue crews to search through the rubble, Zoldos said. Everyone who worked in the buildings has been accounted for, he said, but there could be customers or other people who were there.
Thirty-five members of the Raleigh and Chapel Hill fire departments went to Durham on Wednesday, said Keith Acree, a spokesman with the state Department of Public Safety. They are trained by the state to rescue people from collapsed buildings.
A hazardous materials regional team from Raleigh was also on the scene, Acree said, as were structural engineers who do not work for government agencies but who provide technical advice to rescuers as they search buildings.
Will Hunt, who works at the Peabody Place building a block away from the explosion, said he did not receive any sort of warning about a gas leak. The road was not closed, he said, adding that a co-worker drove by the building just before the blast.
“About two minutes after my co-worker came back, the explosion happened,” Hunt said. “It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Our roof moved. It sounded like something extremely heavy was dropped on top of our building.”
Dottie Flake was walking to work from her home on Trinity Avenue and was a block from the scene.
“I just heard a boom, and didn’t know what it was with all the construction around here,” she said. “I saw the smoke, then fire trucks and first responders, and everyone was rushing out of their buildings.”
Dominion Energy cut off the gas for 19 meters in the area, the company said Wednesday evening.
“We are deeply saddened by today’s tragedy,” Rodney Blevins, CEO of the company’s Southeast Energy Group, said in a statement. “Our thoughts, prayers and sympathy are with the families of those who were injured and the deceased. Our focus now is working in cooperation with local agencies to ensure the area is safe for residents to return.”
The blast destroyed a two-story building that may have attic space, Zoldos said. The 115 N. Duke St. address is home to a the coffee shop Kaffeinate and a company called Prescient, which recently moved its headquarters from Colorado to Durham.
On Instagram, Kaffeinate urged its customers to stay away.
“Please do not come to the shop or the area around it,” the business said on the social media site earlier on Wednesday. “We are ok. We will update when we can. Thank you so much.”
The block also houses Torero’s Mexican restaurant and Saint James Seafood.
Durham officials said residents of the West Village Toms Building, which is not currently habitable, will get hotel vouchers, according to the Wednesday night news release from Wil Glenn. But Gregson Street, which had closed amid the explosion, has reopened.
People displaced by the explosion can visit Dominion Energy’s Claims Operations Center at 900 W. Main St. when it reopens at 8 a.m. Thursday, Glenn said in his news release. The claims center, which also is Maverick’s Smokehouse & Taproom, also had been open late into Wednesday night.
Wednesday was Durham’s 150th birthday, and city employees had gathered in City Hall to celebrate. What was supposed to be a party turned into a sad gathering, said council member Mark-Anthony Middleton.
“This is a challenging and dark day,” he said. “We are saddened and heartbroken over the loss of life.”
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel praised first responders.
“Our police, fire and emergency services have been absolutely incredible — our firefighters standing there with their hoses, not knowing if there would be another explosion,” Schewel said.
Dominion Energy said on Twitter that it has cut off gas to the area.
“Our thoughts & prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families,” Dominion tweeted.
Reporters Josh Shaffer, Lynn Bonner, Drew Jackson, Tammy Grubb and Joe Johnson contributed.