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Here’s the man in the photo from the Durham explosion: ‘I just wanted to help’

One early citizen responder to Durham gas explosion shares his story

After hearing the blast, Jason Sholtz immediately ran to the scene of the gas explosion and helped those who were injured, where he appeared in a storytelling photo made by Jim Rogalski, surveying the damage with his hand upon his head.
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After hearing the blast, Jason Sholtz immediately ran to the scene of the gas explosion and helped those who were injured, where he appeared in a storytelling photo made by Jim Rogalski, surveying the damage with his hand upon his head.

Jason Sholtz smelled the gas long before he heard the explosion. The air in downtown Durham was thick with the odor, enough to make him lightheaded.

So when the blast shook the air in Durham, Sholtz knew in a second the gas had ignited.

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Jason Sholtz surveys the scene in downtown Durham moments after a gas explosion killed at least one person and injured several others Wednesday morning, April 10, 2019. Jim Rogalski

Within minutes, as Sholtz headed toward victims, a crowd of injured Duke University employees filed out of the building next door. One of them, Jim Rogalski, snapped this picture, which circulated widely enough that one of Sholtz’ friends contacted The News & Observer reporter and identified him.

Here is Sholtz’ account of the immediate aftermath, given to the N&O on Wednesday night:

Sholtz, 38, was less than two blocks from the scene, making deliveries to a client for SociaBull Coffee Co.

When he reached the blast site on Duke Street, he found a woman trapped inside her car with the air bag inflated, cut by shrapnel and glass. So he ripped the air bag upward and pulled her out, sitting her down away from the wreckage.

“It’s what I’d want somebody to do for me,” Sholtz said. “I just wanted to help. She was cut up pretty bad.”

Fire and police radio traffic give the sequence of events leading up to the gas explosion at 115 N. Duke St. in Durham, NC on April 10, 2019.

Even before the explosion, Sholtz had seen firetrucks in the area, working to repair the gas leak he’d smelled. After the explosion, he saw of the firefighters was lying on the ground, not moving.

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Jason Sholtz, who appears in a well-known photograph standing among fire and rubble with his hand on his head, was one of the first people on the scene of a deadly gas explosion in downtown Durham, NC, and shared his experience in a video interview in his home the day after the explosion, on Thursday, Apr. 11, 2019, in Durham, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

He ran to help and either ran into or grabbed another man who was heavily bleeding. He couldn’t tell in the confusion. But he ended up dragging the injured man away from the scene. As he did, Sholtz saw the man was badly burned — enough that his utility worker’s vest had melted.

At this point, Sholtz said, workers started to file out of the Duke University office across the street, many of them bleeding from windows that had exploded. That’s when Rogalski snapped a photo of Sholtz standing in the street with his hand on his head, debris and rubble around him. By the end of Wednesday, it was one of the most shared images from the explosion.

Sholtz emphasized that many other people were helping. He says he just accidentally became one of the most visible.

Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos, in fact, described a scene of Good Samaritans helping the wounded for blocks around the ruined building. “There was a lot of people helping in the street,” he said Thursday at a press conference, “which is normal for an emergency like this.”

Firefighters attempt to put out a fire caused by an explosion and collapse near Brightleaf Square area of Durham on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. One person is dead and 15 have been taken to the hospital.

Sholtz helped some of the Duke employees away from the scene and returned to the burned man. Sholtz had abandoned his car and left his phone inside, so he borrowed the injured man’s phone and asked who to call.

Sholtz dialed the man’s wife and got no answer. So he tried the mother’s number and got through.

“He was bad,” Sholtz said. “He also started saying he was a diabetic.”

First responders remove a victim from the scene of an explosion and fire at a building at 115 N. Duke St. in downtown Durham, April 10, 2019, as reported by our news partner ABC11.

As emergency crews filled the scene, Sholtz, who was unhurt, left the area on foot. He couldn’t get to his car.

“It’s not something you ever think will happen to you,” he said. “Then it does, and you do what you’ve got to do. It puts things in perspective. All you’ve got is life. The most precious thing.”

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First responders continue to go through the rubble left by an explosion near Brightleaf Square in Durham on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. City officials spoke to the media about the on-going efforts to secure the area and make sure all are safe.

Watch the view from a remote camera mounted to watch a Durham bridge as it shakes violently when Durham building explodes blocks away Wednesday April 10, 2019.

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.

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