1 person killed, 25 hurt, including 9 firefighters, in Durham gas explosion

North Carolina
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Durham officials now say 25 people, including 9 firefighters, were hurt and a coffee shop owner was killed in Wednesday’s gas explosion and building collapse at 115 North Duke Street.

The scene was much less chaotic on Thursday than it was Wednesday beginning around 9:40 a.m. when a gas leak was first reported at 115 N. Duke St.

Less than 40 minutes later, a huge explosion rocked downtown Durham and sent thick, black smoke billowing into the sky. The smoke could be seen for miles and actually showed up on Doppler radar in the WNCN weather center.

Durham police said that Durham firefighters were sent to a gas leak call in the 100-block of N. Duke Street at 9:38 a.m. A contractor was boring under the sidewalk and struck a 2-inch gas line.

At 10:07 a.m., Dominion Energy and the Durham Fire Department were investigating the leak when the explosion happened, police said.

The explosion directly involved five buildings.

The building where the explosion occurred has been decimated and much of it is now rubble. Four other buildings were damaged, some heavily.

The SBI, ATF, and OSHA are assisting in the investigation.

The blast resulted in the death of Kong Lee, 61, and injured 25, including six critically. One was taken to the UNC Burn Center.

A firefighter, Darren Wheeler, was seriously injured and taken into surgery. Durham police said around 6 p.m. Wednesday that Wheeler was out of surgery and recovering from his injuries.

“We’ve had a terrible tragedy today,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “I feel a real sense of loss and of grief. It’s a very difficult day in that way. But I feel something else as well, and that is a tremendous sense of gratitude. I saw firefighters with their hoses, fighting that fire not knowing if there was another potential gas explosion.”

Durham police said part of downtown will remain closed as crews perform search and rescue operations, as well as an investigation and cleanup.

Duke University employee Mary Williams told the AP she heard the explosion and felt shaking at her building a third of a mile away.

“I was in the kitchen. I heard this loud boom and the building shook. When I looked out, I saw the smoke billowing up. I was scared for whoever was in the vicinity because it did not look very good.”

Another Duke employee in the same building, Sharon Caple, said the sky darkened in the minutes afterward.

“All you saw was this black smoke,” she said.

Fergus Bradley owns Maverick’s Steakhouse on W. Main Street. He was in his car when he heard the blast.

“Honestly it was so powerful that I thought a bomb had gone off,” he said.

Bradley ran through the rubble to try and help.

“When I emerged on Duke Street through the building, there were people bloodied on the street. People being dragged out of the building.  It was awful,” he said.

Justin Tipper and his wife live off of N. Duke Street. By Thursday afternoon they were able to return to their apartment to gather what they could, but the building isn’t safe to stay in.

“It blew the windows open. Part of our ceiling started coming down.  We evacuated immediately,” said Tipper.

Not only the Tipper’s home, but their business was also damaged. The couple own Ramblers wine and beer shop on Fuller Street.

“This is something that nobody prepares for. Especially when you have a business and your apartment are both right next door to where the incident happened,” he said.

The building where the explosion occurred is occupied by Prescient Co., which said in July 2017 that it was moving its headquarters from Arvada, Colorado, and expected to employ about 60 executives, engineering and sales workers in Durham. The company uses specialized software to design and build precise materials that allow builders to assemble multi-story apartments, hotels and other commercial buildings faster and cheaper.

Prescient issued the following statement to CBS 17: “We are grateful to the first responders and are working closely with the local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with all who were affected by today’s incident.”

Dominion Energy also said it is working to provide assistance to residents and business owners impacted by the explosion. It is offering meals and lodging.  

Police said Wednesday night that West Village Toms Warehouse, a residential building near the site of the explosion, is not habitable.

Residents who need a place to stay can visit Dominion Energy’s Claims Operations Center located at Maverick’s Smokehouse and Taproom at 900 W. Main St. to get a hotel voucher.

People can also contact Dominion at 1-877-592-7762.

According to the Durham Fire Department, the following roads remain closed Thursday:

Duke Street from Chapel Hill Street to Fernway Avenue
Main Street from Greyson Street to Fuller Street
Morgan Street from Greyson Street to Fuller Street

Nearly a dozen roads were closed in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

A business owner who works across the street from the explosion told CBS 17 that police told her she could work in her building Thursday morning but they may need to evacuate her later in the day due to concerns about stress fractures in the gas lines.

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Emergency responders are on the scene of an explosion following a gas leak that occurred on N. Duke Street Wednesday morning and left at least one person dead and more than a dozen injured.

Durham police said that Durham firefighters were sent to a gas leak call in the 100 block of N. Duke Street at 9:38 a.m. A contractor was boring under the sidewalk and struck a 2-inch gas line.

At 10:07 a.m., Dominion Energy and the Durham Fire Department were investigating the leak when the explosion happened, police said.

The explosion directly involved five buildings. 

Officials said there could still be people in the collapsed building. 

The SBI, ATF, and OSHA are assisting in the investigation. 

Officials said at least one person died as a result of the explosion and at least 17 people were transported to the hospital, including a firefighter who was seriously injured. A Dominion Energy employee was also injured.

Durham EMS said 17 patients were transported to local hospitals.

Six victims were in critical condition and one was taken to the UNC Burn Center.

A firefighter who was hurt has serious, but non-life-threatening injuries, according to Durham fire chief.

Authorities said the building where the explosion occurred is partially collapsed and the building across the street is damaged as well.

Students from a nearby school, the Durham School of the Arts, were evacuated and classes dismissed for the day.

“We’ve had a terrible tragedy today,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “I feel a real sense of loss and of grief. It’s a very difficult day in that way. But I feel something else as well, and that is a tremendous sense of gratitude. I saw firefighters with their hoses, fighting that fire not knowing if there was another potential gas explosion.”

Police Chief C.J. Davis said part of downtown will be closed as the investigation and cleanup continues. 

Duke University employee Mary Williams told the AP she heard the explosion and felt shaking at her building a third of a mile away.

“I was in the kitchen. I heard this loud boom and the building shook. When I looked out, I saw the smoke billowing up. I was scared for whoever was in the vicinity because it did not look very good.”

Another Duke employee in the same building, Sharon Caple, said the sky darkened in the minutes afterward.

“All you saw was this black smoke,” she said.

The explosion happened in a shopping district created from remodeled tobacco warehouses and industrial buildings near downtown Durham.

The building is occupied by Prescient Co., which said in July 2017 that it was moving its headquarters from Arvada, Colorado, and expected to employ about 60 executives, engineering and sales workers in Durham. The company uses specialized software to design and build precise materials that allow builders to assemble multi-story apartments, hotels and other commercial buildings faster and cheaper.

Prescient issued the following statement to CBS 17: “We are grateful to the first responders and are working closely with the local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with all who were affected by today’s incident.”

Dominion Energy released a statement regarding the explosion:

PSNC Energy crews are on the scene of an emergency incident on 117 N. Duke Street in Durham. A PSNC Energy employee responded to a call about a third-party damage to a natural gas line and the explosion occurred shortly thereafter.

Additional PSNC Energy crews arrived at the scene at approximately 10:26 a.m. and shut off the flow of gas to the area at approximately 11:10 a.m. We are working closely with local emergency response and county officials.

Dominion Energy’s thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families. We are continuing to work with emergency officials on scene and updates will be issued when more information is available.”

Durham police said the following intersections downtown are closed:

  • Duke Street at Main Street
  • Duke Street at Gregson Street
  • Duke Street at Peabody Street
  • Duke Street at Pettigrew Street
  • Duke Street at Chapel Hill Street
  • Chapel Hill Street at Gregson Street
  • Gregson Street at Peabody Street
  • Gregson Street at W. Main Street
  • Gregson Street at Lamond Avenue
  • W. Main Street at Fuller Street
  • Fuller Street at W. Morgan Street

Police are warning people to stay away from downtown if possible as the scene is still active and most of the area is shut down to traffic.

Authorities are planning another update at 2 p.m.

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