One hour in downtown Durham: A strong odor. A violent blast. And a chaotic scene.

Duke University student Christian Leonard was working on his laptop in an apartment near Brightleaf Square in downtown Durham about 9:30 Wednesday morning.

Jim Rogalski sat at his desk, along a row of windows, inside a nearby office on North Duke Street.

And Jason Sholtz was making a delivery for his coffee company, SociaBull Coffee Co., when he caught a whiff of a powerful gas odor.

“It was putrid,” he said.

At 9:37 a.m., the first call about a gas leak reached 911 Durham dispatchers. Just 30 minutes later, an explosion shook the buildings for blocks in every direction.

The shock blew out an eighth-floor window at NC Mutual Life Insurance, a tower three blocks away. One ex-soldier compared the sound to bombs in Afghanistan. When the smoke cleared, one person was dead and at least 25 injured.

Here is a reconstruction of what is known so far about Wednesday morning — an attempt to view the disaster as a whole. This account is compiled from police and fire officials, accounts of bystanders caught inside the smoke and rubble, and from the hundreds who shot pictures as they scrambled to safety.

‘A little worse than what I thought’

In the 9:37 a.m. call, a person working on or near the gas line says, “we hit a gas service that’s on North Duke between Main Street and Morgan Street.” The caller talks of smelling gas.

Emergency crews responded to the gas leak in relative calm, according to radio traffic. A four-person crew from Durham Fire Station 1 on East Morgan Street, about a mile away, arrived within minutes.

But quickly, they realized they were dealing with a less-than-routine problem.

“Help us meter some of these buildings,” said an emergency responder on police scanner traffic. “I think this leak is a little worse than what I thought.”

“I heard a huge boom, and I thought lightning struck my building,” recalled Leonard, the Duke student. “I opened my blinds, and it was completely sunny out.”

As Leonard scanned the streets, he saw frightened people running away from his building, though he could not see the source of the explosion. So he climbed to the top of the nearby parking garage and stood about 100 feet from the remains of the building, where flames burned bright orange and smoke rose hundreds of feet high.

He shot a video and posted it to Twitter at 10:27 a.m., one of the first and most telling pieces of footage. In the middle of it, a voice can be heard saying, “Oh my God ... This is crazy.”

On the seventh floor of the Chesterfield building, around the corner on West Main Street, Mallory Foutch said things were chaotic in her workplace at Nutanix.

“We felt and heard a very significant blast,” she said. “It shook our entire building. Our power went out. Our desks were shaking.”

Across the street from the Prescient building, Rogalski sat inside the Duke Health Development and Alumni Affairs office, which has windows facing North Duke Street.

“All of those windows were blown out,” he said. “People were sitting at their desks and ceiling tiles were falling. Stuff flew off shelves. You could barely see anything for 25 feet from the dust. People were screaming.”

Roughly 100 people work in that office, and they had an emergency protocol to follow. Though many were bleeding from deep gashes, they filed outside into the street, which was strewn with rubble and clouded with smoke.

As Rogalski left the area, he caught sight of Sholtz, from the coffee delivery company, in the street, standing in front of the ruined building with his hand on his head. He snapped a picture of the man in red shorts and loafers, then shambled away while the wounded made bandages out of their shirts.

The damage stretched for blocks. The picture window had blown out at The Federal Bar a block away. Cars sat abandoned in the streets, their windows smashed. Styrofoam sound absorbers fell from the ceiling at Durham School of the Arts.

“I thought it was an earthquake or a bomb,” said sixth-grader Ryan Ferreri, 11. “It shook my chair. I banged my knee on the desk.”

Emergency crews poured into downtown blocks, crowding around the Kaffeinate building.

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

‘We need a medic ... immediately’

The blast hit the first fire engine on the scene, Zoldos said, blowing out its windows and damaging the left side. But the truck kept pumping water.

Soon after, a responder is heard saying, “I have a firefighter injured on Duke Street. We need a medic at Main and Duke immediately.”

Wheeler, the firefighter, was exposed the most to the blast and was severely injured, Zoldos said. Fellow firefighters pulled Wheeler and other victims to safety, despite suffering cuts, bruises, concussions and other injuries in the blast. A second ladder truck arrived shortly, blocking the street, and another crew from Fire Station 3 on Miami Boulevard arrived to help.

Sholtz had been driving less than two blocks away when the explosion hit. He had smelled the strong gas odor, and he knew from the strength of the blast that it must have ignited. But he drove toward the sound rather than away, abandoning his car and moving toward Kaffeinate.

“I just wanted to help,” he said.

The first person he saw was a woman trapped inside a car near the fire and smoke, pinned to her seat by the air bag. She had cuts from glass and shrapnel, Sholtz said, and he pulled the air bag aside to free her. He never got her name nor saw her later in the day, helping her off the street and moving on.

Next he saw a firefighter on the ground. But as he moved toward the fire personnel, he either grabbed or ran into a utility worker who was badly burned, his vest melted. Sholtz dragged the man away from the wreckage and, taking his cell phone, asked for a number to call. He tried the man’s wife, then his mother, speaking to her on the street as sirens wailed.

“It’s what I would want someone to do for me,” he said later.

The scene in downtown Durham, NC moments after a gas explosion that killed at least one and injured several Wednesday morning, April 10, 2019. Jim Rogalski

Within minutes of the explosion, social media sites were saturated with pictures of smoke pouring into the downtown sky and firefighters climbing over debris to douse the flames.

At 10:40 a.m., smoke was still pouring from the ruined Kaffeinate building, and fire trucks had blocked off the scene.

“Let’s keep in mind we still have an active gas leak with an active fire,” said a scanner voice. “Going to need to shut down Amtrak.”

A few blocks away, Jennifer Summe posted on Instagram a photo she took looking out her window. It showed a thick cloud of smoke against the blue sky, filling most of the background. And in the foreground of the picture sat a to-go cup of latte she had just finished, bought from Kaffeinate shortly before.

Leonard, Rogalski and Sholtz all survived the day, almost without a scratch.

But Kong Lee, the 61-year-old owner of the demolished coffee shop who warned customers away 2 minutes before the explosion, did not. The city and his children mourned him, saying his kindness and his joy in helping others made Kaffeinate more than just a place to get coffee. It made Lee — the father of Diana and Raymond — feel like family to so many who met him.

In less than 24 hours after police announced his death, a Gofundme page in his honor had raised more than $48,000 to help support his adult children who face a future of uncertainty.

By Saturday afternoon, the total topped $125,000 with donations big and small coming in by the minute.

Contributing to this report were staff writers Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, Lynn Bonner, Zachery Eanes, Drew Jackson, Joe Johnson and Mark Schultz.

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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.
Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.