Durham rallies together after explosion shuts down restaurants, businesses

Emergency radio traffic sketches out sequence of events in Durham explosion

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.
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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.

On Thursday, the day after an explosion rocked several blocks of Durham, killed the owner of a coffee shop and damaged at least 15 buildings, area business owners started figuring out their new normal.

Wednesday’s explosion on North Duke Street leveled a building that included Kaffeinate, a coffee shop popular with area residents and Duke students. Its 61-year-old owner, Kong Lee, was killed. Eight to 10 people people were inside when emergency officials evacuated the building, Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said at a Thursday morning press conference. Lee was still inside when the explosion occurred, Zoldos said.

The blocks surrounding the blast include numerous restaurants and popular bars, members of the city’s food community often associated with Durham’s resurgence in recent years. That community is now leading the response and the climb back to normalcy.

Within hours of the explosion, people started rallying to support Kaffeinate as well as Saint James Seafood, owned by renowned chef and restaurateur Matt Kelly, and Torero’s Mexican restaurant, both on West Main Street around the corner from the blast. Thursday, they were closed. Parker and Otis, further down South Duke Street, also said it would be closed.

Kong Lee (middle), owned Kaffeinate coffee shop in Durham and died in the explosion that destroyed the shop Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Kaffeinate/Instagram

Multiple GoFundMe campaigns were established to help the Lee family. Lee worked at the shop with his two children, Diana Lee and Raymond Lee. A student at Durham School of the Arts — a school down the street from the blast — set up a GoFundMe to help Kaffeinate and had raised more than $3,200 since it launched Wednesday. Go to gofundme.com/fundraiser-for-kaffeinate.

A second fundraiser was launched Thursday afternoon by Callie Brauel, who identified herself as a friend of Diana Lee. Within a few hours it was nearly halfway to meeting its $25,000 goal. Go to gofundme.com/lee-family-support.

Daniel Sartain, co-owner of Bar Virgile in Durham, launched a GoFundMe page called the Durham Restaurant Workers Fund. With a goal of $10,000, the total had approached almost $8,000 by Thursday afternoon. Go to gofundme.com/durham-restaurant-workers-fund.

“Downtown Durham suffered a tremendous accident today, April 10th,” Sartain wrote. “Many restaurant workers, who depend on their shops being open, are without income for the foreseeable future. With your help, we can lessen their burden just as bit as many are just beginning what is sure to be an arduous journey.”

Durham officials spoke Thursday morning about the death of Kong Lee, owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, and about the widespread damage caused by Wednesday's gas explosion.

How restaurants are helping

Maverick’s Smokehouse & Taproom is about a block away from the explosion site at 900 W. Main St. While they said they are closed to customers Thursday, they have become the center of the recovery effort, are open to first-responders, utility crews and municipal workers helping with cleanup and recovery, they announced on Facebook.

“If anyone ever had any doubt about the amount of love and generosity in Durham....don’t,” owners wrote on Facebook.

The restaurant also is serving as a claims center for Dominion Energy, where displaced residents of West Village can get hotel vouchers, Durham police said Wednesday night in an email.

Pete Susca, owner of West Main Street restaurant It’s a Southern Thing, said a fundraiser is being organized by the Durham restaurant and retail community, with proceeds benefiting victims of the explosion. A meeting will be held Sunday to finalize details and set a date for the event.

Susca said his restaurant, about a block and a half away, endured the blast reasonably well, reporting only broken bottles, a fallen television and some cracks in the windows among the damage. He said the restaurant would attempt to reopen Thursday night.

Search and rescue efforts employ the use of a search dog on Thursday morning to try locating anyone who may be trapped in the wreckage resulting from Wednesday's explosion and building collapse on Duke St. Currently, no one is reported missing.

Bar and bottle shop Ramblers is at the corner of Morgan and Fuller streets within the West Village complex. Justin Tipper, who owns Ramblers with his wife, Brittany, said the blast had knocked down ceiling tiles and ducts, closing the business indefinitely. The couple were in their West Village apartment when the gas leak exploded a block over, breaking glass in their windows, tossing plants to the ground and dropping debris from the ceiling.

“It’s hard to get across, but this was big,” Justin Tipper said of the explosion and the ensuing confusion. “I’ve never felt, heard or seen anything like that in my entire life. ... The response from emergency crews was so fast. Everyone was here almost two minutes after I stepped outside.”

The Tippers stayed at a hotel Wednesday night, but have since been cleared to return to West Village. Justin Tipper said the response of the city has been emotional.

“Durham is really coming together on this one,” he said.

Rose’s Noodles Dumplings & Sweets is on North Gregson Street, one street over from the explosion. On Wednesday, husband-and-wife owners Justin and Katie Meddis were loading their son in the car when the explosion occurred. Justin Meddis said there was no warning, just a massive boom.

“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview. “We didn’t know anything. We couldn’t smell (gas). It was just out of the blue that that happened.”

Thursday, the restaurant said it would be open regular hours.

“It is difficult to look across the street and think about what we witnessed yesterday,” the restaurant wrote on Facebook. “Thank you to all the first responders who risked their lives to save others. Thank you to all the people we saw on the street helping strangers.”

Here who is helping after Durham explosion

Here are other efforts:

Durty Bull Brewing Co., a brewery less than a mile from the explosion site, posted a message on Instagram for those residents displaced by the explosion. The brewery at 206 Broadway St. said water, wireless internet, work areas and a couch are available.

Zenfish Poke Bar, at 810 Ninth St., Durham is donating 20% of today’s proceeds to families and businesses affected by the explosion, according to an Instagram post.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.