Officials: Owner last person in coffee shop before Durham blast; city investigating contractor

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Durham officials provide update on yesterday’s fatal blast

Durham, N.C. — Firefighters had just ordered customers and employees inside a Durham coffee shop to evacuate seconds before the building exploded because of a gas leak, officials said Thursday.

The shop’s owner, Kong Lee, was still inside the building on North Duke Street when it was leveled by the blast, killing the 61-year-old man.

Latest developments

  • 25 people were injured, including 9 firefighters.
  • Five patients were at Duke Hospital on Thursday: two in critical condition, two in serious condition and one in good condition.
  • Officials still haven’t identified the contractor who hit the gas line before the blast.
  • 15 buildings were damaged, including one catastrophically.
  • Drivers are advised to avoid downtown Durham.
  • Though inspections show that the Durham School of the Arts campus buildings are safe following yesterday’s gas explosion, extensive street closures in the area mean that the school will have to remain closed on Friday
25 injured in Durham explosion; 15 buildings damaged

Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said Fiber Technologies Network LLC, also known as Lighthouse Fiber Networks, had a permit to do work in the area. The permit was issued last June and was valid through June 25, 2019. He said the company was recently acquired by Crown Castle.

Utilis Engineering, a Charlotte-based company, is the company that submitted permits for the city’s review, but Ferguson said he can’t confirm they were were the ones doing the work because they likely hired a subcontractor.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s database, all of the company’s Ferguson named have no violations over the last five years.

Durham Deputy Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi said in a news briefing Thursday about 10 people were in the shop when firefighters were going door to door around the 100 block of North Duke Street telling people to evacuate because of a “significant” gas leak.

The people who had been evacuated likely would have died had they still been in the building, Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said.

The building housed the Lee’s coffee shop, Kaffeinate; software innovator Prescient; Torero’s Mexican restaurant and Saint James Seafood.

Nine firefighters and 16 civilians were injured in the blast at 115 N. Duke St. Six people suffered serious injuries, officials said.

Duke University Hospital said that five patients were there on Thursday. Two patients were still in critical condition. Two people were upgraded to serious from critical condition, and one person was upgraded to good from critical condition.

Some firefighters continued rescue operations after they were injured until other responders arrived, Zoldos said.

Iannuzzi said he expected all hospitalized firefighters to be released Thursday.

Occupants of a Carolina Livery bus near the building were also injured, as were some Duke employees.

The explosion and fire damaged 15 buildings, including the one at 115 N. Duke St., which suffered “catastrophic damage,” Iannuzzi said.

Viewer video: Plume of smoke rises over Durham after fire, blast

Authorities were evaluating the buildings to determine if and when they could be occupied again. People with questions about reoccupancy can call the city of Durham at 919-560-4427, ext. 29600.

As of 4 p.m., Torero’s Mexican restaurant and Saint James Seafood both building could not be occupied.

Investigators said K9s were used Thursday, but nothing was found.

Firefighters were first dispatched to the gas leak at 9:38 a.m. Wednesday. Contractors were drilling and had struck a 2-inch natural gas line.

The Durham deputy city manager said the city is investigating which contractor was drilling. He said that the city knew which companies had permits to work in the area but that those permits don’t include specific information about when workers would be on the scene.

Fire crews began evacuating the area, and the explosion occurred at 10:07 a.m. The building at 115 N. Duke St. partially collapsed in a manner that Zoldos compared to the front of the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

View from the ground: Explosion destroys buildings near Durham's Brightleaf Square

The contractor who struck the gas line was not a Dominion Energy employee and was not doing work on behalf of Dominion Energy, a spokesperson said in a statement.

Louis Panzer, the executive director of NC-811, the service contractors are supposed to call before digging, said the contractor was installing fiber network. He said he is confident all policies and protocols were followed by 811, which means 811 would have notified utility companies to mark where any gas lines are.

811 director: Contractor took proper steps before dig that led to explosion

Durham Police spokesman Wil Glenn advised people to be certain any online donation sites like GoFundMe are legitimate before donating.

Drivers are advised to avoid the downtown Durham area and can use the Durham Freeway.

Road closures include:

  • Duke Street from Chapel Hill Street to Fernway Avenue
  • Main Street from Gregson Street to Fuller Street
  • Morgan Street from Gregson Street to Fuller Street

Though inspections show that the Durham School of the Arts campus buildings are safe following yesterday’s gas explosion in downtown, extensive street closures in the area mean that the school will have to remain closed on Friday, April 12, officials said.

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