All but one of the nine firefighters injured in the April 10 gas explosion in downtown Durham has returned to work, officials said Monday.
At a press conference, city officials said work will begin Tuesday to unearth the natural gas pipe involved in the explosion and fire that killed Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee and injured 25 others, including the firefighters.
United Way of the Greater Triangle has established the “Durham One Fund,” in response to the Duke Street explosion. It will accept donations for nonprofits providing human services for Durham County residents affected by the disaster, according to a news release.
The explosion investigation could take months, officials said. They deferred questions on it to the N.C. State Utilities Commission and federal authorities.
Investigators want to know if there were any violations of the law and what happened, even if was just an accident, said Bill Gillmore, deputy director of the operations division for the commission.
“We know there was an excavation going on,” he said. “We know there were utility marks called in and located. There is a possibility that there is some other cause that is not quite so obvious. So we are going to go looking for whatever made this happen.”
These types of investigations are rare, Gilmore said, comparing it to an aviation accident report, which usually takes months and sometimes years to be released.
“It is going to be thorough,” Gilmore said. “It is going to be methodical. And we are going to look at everything.”
The first step is getting the site clear of debris and secure to get into the ground and see if the gas line was struck during construction. What happens next depends on what they discover in the ground, he said. The final report will be made public and the commission is able to issue fines for any violations.
Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said he was told that Utilities Commission investigators often take an “inch by inch” look at the pipes as they’re unearthed.
The site where the Prescient Building once stood is still piled with debris from the explosion and subsequent fire occurred.
A contractor installing fiber for Fiber Technologies Network, a subsidiary of Crown Castle, called 911 at 9:37 a.m. April 10 to report breaking the pipe, which belonged to PSNC Energy, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, The News & Observer has previously reported.
The company was not working on the pipe but said it was called in to turn off the gas after a third party damaged the line, according to a PSNC news release. The gas company’s first employee arrived at 10:03 a.m. The explosion at 10:07 a.m. injured the employee before the worker could turn off the gas, a PSNC spokesman told The News & Observer. A second PSNC crew arrived around 10:26 a.m. and the gas was shut off at approximately 11:10 a.m., the spokesman said.
Eighteen buildings, two of them now condemned, with a total tax value of $108 million, were damaged in the blast. A total of 23 businesses were affected, officials have said.
On Friday Gov. Roy Cooper sent a letter to the U.S. Small Business Administration asking for economic injury disaster loans for the city.
The governor’s letter says the explosion “consumed an entire city block causing heavy damage to nine businesses, destroying four businesses and impacting the operations of surrounding businesses.”
At Monday’s press conference, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said, “We will do everything we can to maximize the help we can get from the federal and state governments.”