At least one person died and at least 17 suffered injuries in an explosion that occurred after a gas leak in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Part of one building collapsed and up to 15 nearby structures were also damaged by the blast, which sent shockwaves for miles. Officials are investigating the explosion but believe it is related to underground drilling. The North Carolina building explosion highlights how dangerous gas leaks can be, and how easily they can lead to a deadly structure fire.
Contractor Drilling Underground Hit Gas Line
The explosion happened on Wed., Apr. 10 at around 10:30 a.m., after a contractor, who was drilling underneath the sidewalk along North Duke Street, hit a two-inch gas line. The resulting explosion caused a two-story brick building to collapse and damaged as many as 15 surrounding buildings.
Authorities initially responded at 9:38 am to reports of a gas smell. Once they arrived on the scene, officials determined the gas leak’s severity and began evacuating the area, but the building exploded before everyone made it outside.
One person died in the gas explosion and at least 17 others suffered injuries, 2 of them critical. Many of the injured were harmed by the impact of the blast and from debris that went flying as the building exploded. Most who were taken to the hospital were released shortly after. Officials accounted for everyone in the building, with no additional fatalities found on the scene and no one reported missing.
Despite the explosion, the gas remained on until around 11:10 a.m. because the gas line was hit by a third-party contractor, and PSNC, the company that owns the pipe, had to be called in to shut off the gas. A PSNC employee arrived on scene at 10:03 a.m., but before the gas was shut off the explosion happened, injuring the worker. Additional crews were then called in to turn the gas off. With the gas on, firefighters had to allow the flames to burn or they risked further explosions.
Kong Lee, 61, died in the North Carolina gas line explosion, according to officials. Lee owned the Kaffeinate coffee shop and remained in his shop when firefighters evacuated. The other 10 people in the shop—employees and patrons—left immediately.
“The owner decided that he did not want to evacuate, our engine captain went to find a police officer to enforce that evacuation order and that is when the building exploded and collapsed,” Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said.
A colleague who owned a nearby business said Lee stayed behind to make sure everyone was out of his coffee shop before he left the premises. Lee’s family, meanwhile, remembered him as loving to serve people and having “the biggest, purest heart.” Customers posted on Kaffeinate’s Facebook page to describe Lee as warm and delightful.
Kaffeinate opened for business in Oct. 2017 and offered specialty coffees, waffles and pastries. Two minutes before the building exploded, Lee posted to social media letting customers know Kaffeinate was closed for the day. He called his children to tell them there was a gas leak and that he would put a sign outside.
Witnesses Describe Aftermath of North Carolina Building Explosion
Fire Chief Zoldos, who was a 9/11 first responder, compared the explosion’s aftermath to that of the Pentagon at 9/11, only on a smaller scale. He further described the scene as catastrophic and told reporters that firefighters were troubled they could not save everyone.
Mary Williams, who was only one-third of a mile away from the explosion site, said she heard a loud boom and the building she was in shook. Adam Barron, who owns a restaurant in the neighborhood, was driving nearby when the explosion rattled his car, causing him to think a bomb had been set off.
Students at the Durham School of the Arts said they were shaken up by the explosion, which caused portions of the school’s ceiling to fall and blew out one of the windows. Officials closed off the area around the blast site and dismissed students early.
Authorities Investigating Gas Leak
Authorities are now investigating exactly what caused the explosion.
A contractor carrying out work for Fiber Technologies Network reportedly hit the gas line that set off the explosion. Fiber Technologies has the required licenses and permits to conduct the work being done.
The building that collapsed is owned by 2050 Bentley LLC. Kaffeinate was on the first floor, with the second floor occupied by a construction technology company. The next building over housed the Ingram Collection, purportedly one of the most extensive collections of rare Porsches in the world. The building collapse damaged at least some of the vehicles.