911 caller reported smell of gas in Durham almost an hour before deadly explosion

Durham firefighters responded to a 911 call about a smell of gas almost an hour before last week’s deadly gas explosion and fire that left one person dead and 25 others injured.

The city released new information Tuesday about the April 10 explosion.

A person called 911 at 9:11 a.m. that day to report a strong smell of gas as she was driving through the North Duke and Morgan streets intersection, according to a city news release. A fire engine was dispatched to investigate at 9:13 a.m., the city reported.

However, firefighters could not detect a smell of gas at the intersection and canvassed the area including circling the Durham School of the Arts, according to the city.

Another 911 call came in at 9:37 a.m. from a contractor who said he had hit a gas line.

The building at 115 N. Duke St. exploded at 10:07 a.m.

No other 911 calls were received between the 9:11 a.m. call and the 9:37 a.m. call, according to the city.

“At this time, there is no explanation for the gap between the first reported gas odor received at 9:11 a.m. and the time that passed before the contractor’s call to 911,” the city’s statement says.

“While our investigation is ongoing, an initial review of the actions of Engine 1 responding to the first report of a gas odor followed appropriate procedures, and showed diligence in attempting to verify the presence of a gas odor,” the city wrote.

Durham School of the Arts was mentioned several times in the 911 call, according to the city, but firefighters were not able to make contact with the 911 caller to get more information about where she smelled the gas.

“I’m downtown at DSA and there’s a very strong gas smell,” the caller had told the dispatcher.

Durham Fire Department Engine 1 also returned to the original area of the odor report and paused midblock on Morgan Street between North Duke and Gregson streets for almost a minute, according to the city, but firefighters did not detect a gas odor. After observing a gas service at the rear of 710 W. Main St., facing Morgan Street, firefighters “believed a pressure related venting of gas occurred.”

The engine cleared the call and went back to the station, according to the city, before being dispatched 13 minutes later after the 911 call from the contractor.

The city’s initial review of the Fire Department’s response found the department followed guidelines on emergency response to reports of natural gas odors or leaks.

Kong Lee, 61, owner of Kaffeinate coffeeshop on Duke Street, was killed in the explosion. Firefighters and contractors were among the injured, The News & Observer has reported.

Here is other information released by the city Tuesday.

Permits in the city

There are 11 private utility excavation permits issued by the city that allow work to be performed right now or in the coming days.

Hundreds of permit applications are received each month, according to the city, and there are 434 that have been issued but under which work has not yet started.

Another 156 permits must correct deficiencies identified by city inspectors before proceeding, according to the city.

Overall that’s 601 permits now active in the city.

Gas leak and odor protocol

The city doesn’t track reports of gas leaks and gas odors, which are common emergency calls, the city news release said. The city will assess the risk to the public, while the gas company responds to the source of the leak, when there is one, shuts off service and makes the repair, the release said.

The Fire Department evacuates people door-to-door on a small scale when required, according to the city, and coordinates with Durham County Emergency Management to use the Alert Durham notification system. If you live or work in Durham, you can sign up to receive Alert Durham notifications by phone and email at alertdurham.com.

Among the newly released documents was the field operation guide for responding to emergencies, including natural gas. Among the guidelines are:

Maintain an escape route for personnel.

Eliminate ignition sources.

Request PSNC immediately.

Quickly size up and gather scene information.

Evacuate civilians from hazard area.

Establish Control Zones.

Evacuate areas where natural gas is present.

Monitor to check for migration of natural gas to surrounding areas.

Evacuate areas where natural gas is present.

‘Brave operation’

At Monday’s Durham City Council meeting, Mayor Steve Schewel said April 10 was a day of “terrible tragedy and loss.” He said the city mourns the death of Lee and grieves for his family and the families of those seriously injured.

Schewel said he arrived at the explosion scene with Fire Chief Robert Zoldos and Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson. When they got out of the car they saw bloody people lying in the street at Morgan and Duke streets but each person was already being attended to, he said.

“It was just an incredibly smooth professional and brave operation. And meanwhile the fire was just blazing, blazing nearby,” Schewel said. ”Our folks were prepared, and it showed. They were professional and incredibly brave.”

What’s next

As of Tuesday, there is no timeline for reopening North Duke Street, which is blocked by chain-link fencing. Debris removal is the responsibility of the property owners’ insurance companies, according to the city.

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