‘We smell it’: Worker called 911 to report breaking gas line before Durham explosion

Listen to the 911 call about the gas leak in Durham before explosion

Listen to an edited version of the 911 recording as a caller says they had hit a gas service line and asked to send someone to secure the area until the gas company can arrive and shut off the leak Wednesday April 10, 2019.
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Listen to an edited version of the 911 recording as a caller says they had hit a gas service line and asked to send someone to secure the area until the gas company can arrive and shut off the leak Wednesday April 10, 2019.

Durham city officials on Friday released a copy of Wednesday’s 911 call reporting the gas-line break that later exploded, killing one person and injuring 25 others.

A person working on or near the gas line called 911 at 9:37 a.m., according to the 911 call.

In the recording, the caller tells the 911 operator, “We have hit a gas service that’s on North Duke between Main Street and Morgan Street.”

The caller asks her to send someone to secure the area until the gas company can arrive and shut off the leak. The operator tells him that the Durham Fire Department will be notified.

“We smell it,” the caller tells the operator. “It’s a gas service, one of the 3/4-inch. I don’t think it’s completely in two, but we can smell it.”

The gas line, he says, appears to serve a restaurant. No one is sick or injured at that time, he says, and they also have notified North Carolina 811, a nonprofit that links utility service providers to contractors and homeowners planning to dig around gas and other utility lines.

SBI and other investigators comb through the rubble the Kaffeinate Coffee shop on North Duke Street

“We called 811 back. They’re trying to contact them now,” he says before the calls ends.

The caller provided his name and phone number to the 911 operator, but city officials redacted that information before releasing the recording.

City spokeswoman Beverly Thompson was asked Friday why the city has not identified the company whose worker called 911.

“Our agreement is with the permit holder. The permit holder is Tower Engineering, which acquired Utilis,” Thompson said. “We don’t have any relationship with the company that was on the ground. We don’t have anything in writing.”

“We don’t have any public record that says who dug the hole,” she said.

Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson has said engineering companies typically hire a subcontractor to do excavation work, but he said Thursday that the city had not yet been able to confirm if one had been hired for the fiber-installation work on North Duke Street.

Utilis was acquired by Raleigh-based Tower Engineering last year. A spokeswoman for both companies said Utilis has no comment at this time.

Here is other new information related to the gas explosion:

Kong Lee cake.jpeg
Kong Lee was the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop in Durham. He was killed April 10, in an explosion that destroyed the shop. GoFundMe

Owner’s last minutes

Durham resident Kong Lee, 61, was closing the Kaffeinate coffee shop on North Duke Street when the gas line exploded Wednesday, killing him and destroying the building that housed his family’s business.

Lee’s children Diana Lee and Raymond Lee posted a statement Friday morning on Facebook. The siblings operated the coffee shop with their father.

Durham Fire Department officials have said Lee did not immediately leave the store when he was told to evacuate. His children said he called to let them know about the leak and asked them to let the shop’s staff and customers know they would be closed for the day.

“He was going to close up and make a sign to put on our door in case anybody came by later,” his children wrote in the post. “He took such good care of the shop and was so proud of it.”

Crystal Abauta, who evacuated the shop just before the explosion, told ABC11 that she last saw Lee inside hanging a “closed” sign in the window.

“I saw him put the sign — he was putting a sign in the window, and it said ‘closed due to gas leak,’” Abauta told ABC11. “That’s what I’m thinking: He was just going to put the sign and just go, but before he could get out it happened.”

A post on Kaffeinate’s Facebook page, at 10:05 a.m., said the shop would be closed “due to circumstances beyond our control.” The building exploded two minutes later.

It will likely take some time to determine the full financial fallout from Wednesday’s deadly gas explosion in downtown Durham that left one person dead and more than two dozen others injured. More than $100 million worth of property was damaged.

Duke patient updates

Officials have said 25 people, including nine firefighters, were injured.

Only one of six people initially taken to Duke University Hospital for treatment remained there Friday. That patient was in critical condition, a Duke spokeswoman said in an email.

Two other patients were discharged Friday, and two others were transferred to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, she said, where one person injured in the blast was already in the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center.

Another five people taken to Duke Regional Hospital on Wednesday had already been treated and released, a spokeswoman said.

DSA to reopen Monday

The Durham School of the Arts will reopen Monday on a two-hour delay for students, a Durham Public Schools spokesman said Friday.

The school was closed Wednesday and students were sent home after the explosion a block south on North Duke Street. The school remained closed Thursday and Friday.

Students can begin arriving at school at 10:30 a.m. Monday, said Chip Sudderth, DPS chief communications officer. Teachers and staff will report to the school at 9:30 a.m. Classes will begin at 11:15 a.m., he said.

Counselors will be available to talk with students and staff, Sudderth said, and the cafeteria will be open for lunch. He said juniors and seniors will not be allowed to go off campus for lunch because of the cleanup and recovery efforts.

Families should allow more time to get to the school, since many downtown streets have been reduced to one lane, Sudderth said. The school district has posted a detour map at dpsnc.net and dsa.dpsnc.net.

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