An explosion in downtown Durham Wednesday morning — which killed at least one person and injured more than a dozen others — rocked the area near Brightleaf Square and resulted in dramatic scenes reminiscent of an earthquake aftermath.
Witnesses described flames and dark smoke overtaking the blue sky, shattered windows for blocks as well as screams and injured people calling for help.
“One gentleman in the street was writhing around covered with blood,” said Jim Rogalski, who works for a Duke University office across the street from the explosion. “I have no idea who it was.”
As he walked to safety with his colleagues, he snapped two photos that have been widely circulated on social media of the immediate aftermath. The building across the street had been transformed into rubble.
He’s just one of many who felt the impact of the blast on North Duke Street, which came shortly after a gas leak was reported about 9:38 a.m. Hundreds of people work in the area surrounding the explosion, and the area is home to several restaurants and shops.
The cause of the leak is under investigation, police said Wednesday afternoon at a press conference.
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University’s vice president of public affairs and government relations, said several hundred of those employees work for the university. All were evacuated from two buildings on East Main Street, as well as the Chesterfield and Brightleaf Square, he said. Several employees at 710 E. Main were taken to the hospital after they were hit by flying glass, he said.
“People were sitting at their desks and ceiling tiles were falling,” Rogalski said of the scene in his office on North Duke Street. “Stuff flew off shelves. You could barely see for 25 feet from all the dust. People were screaming.”
He quickly noticed many of his colleagues were injured. “Some people had pretty serious gashes on the heads, on the arms, on their feet. There was quite a lot of blood.”
As the evacuees walked, Rogalski said, the wounded made bandages out of shirts. Some were treated where they stood and others were taken to hospitals by ambulance.
Witnesses describe impact
Businesses, schools and onlookers swarmed to avoid the scene as police, fire and emergency personnel crowded into downtown blocks.
A few blocks away at Durham School of the Arts, sixth-grader Ryan Ferreri said cylindrical Styrofoam sound absorbers fell from the ceiling in at least one hallway as the building shook.
“I thought it was an earthquake or a bomb,” said Ferreri, 11. “It shook my chair. I banged my knee on the desk.”
The school sent out an emergency message telling parents that students were safe but classes would be released early. Buses would take students home, but any students without parents at home would be taken to Brogden Middle School until they could be reunited in the auditorium.
The explosion created such a loud boom that Duke student Christian Leonard thought lightning struck his apartment complex, where he was working on his laptop. He pulled up the blinds and saw a sunny day, but then noticed people running down the street away from his building. He couldn’t tell what had exploded, so he walked to the top of a parking garage and stood about 100 feet from the rooftop burning below him.
“The biggest thing were the flames,” he said. “The flames were just blazing. The smoke went hundreds of feet into the air. This was a completely new experience for me. I’ve never even seen a house fire.”
In a widely shared video he recorded from the garage, a voice can be heard saying, “Oh my God. ... This is crazy.”
At the nearby Chesterfield building, Mallory Foutch reported chaos and wild speculation at Nutanix, where she works on the seventh floor.
“We felt and heard a very significant blast,” she said. “It shook our entire building. Our power went out. Our desks were shaking. People started to question if it was an earthquake. Somebody was asking if a train had derailed and hit our building because we’re right by the tracks at Gregson.”
Matt Ray also works in the Chesterfield and said lights went out and debris floated in the air.
Everyone in his office ran to windows and saw the building burning. Shaken, Ray said, “It’s the place where we go get coffee, so a little scary.”
Foutch said there was confusion about whether to evacuate. When the building management told them to leave, they found even more chaos on the street as police tried to manage the scene, where victims and many onlookers were beginning to gather.
At least one person had to be rescued from the elevator in the Chesterfield, she said.
“The fire was still raging at that point,” Foutch said. “There was just a lot of curiosity. A lot of people who looked very frantic and afraid about what was happening. “
‘Our roof moved’
Will Hunt works at the Peabody Place building a block away from the explosion. He said they didn’t have any warning about the gas leak before the explosion. A co-worker drove by the building about 10 minutes before the explosion and reported a fire truck and construction crew around a pipe. The road was not closed for the construction, Hunt said.
“About two minutes after my coworker 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.”
Police tape marked off the West Village apartment building. Dottie Flake watched from behind the tape. She was walking to work this morning from her home on Trinity Avenue to Harris Teeter at Erwin Square. She was running 5 to 10 minutes behind and was a block away 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.”
Steven Lyles lives on Duke Street near the scene.
“I heard a loud bang,” he said as he watched from behind police tape at West Village. “ I just heard the loud noise [went outside] and then saw all the emergency vehicles and the street was starting to be blocked off.”
Jason Stiffler, a contractor, was working in a building down West Main Street. He heard the explosion and said the impact pushed him forward. When he went to see what happened, he said the windows of area businesses were “waving like an ocean wave.”
Stiffler said he served in Afghanistan and heard plenty of explosions there.
“This (explosion) was about as loud as that,” he said.