Owner of Durham coffee shop inside during explosion, killed in blast

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25 injured in Durham explosion; 15 buildings damaged

Durham, N.C. — Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, was inside his business when the building exploded late Wednesday morning.

Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos confirmed the news on Thursday during a press conference near the explosion site. Lee, 61, was identified Wednesday night as the one person known to have died in the explosion and fire.

Kaffeinate is located on the lower level of the Prescient building at 115 N. Duke Street, which exploded after a gas leak late Wednesday morning.

Kong Lee, owner of Kaffeinate coffee

According to Zoldos, firefighters were going door-to-door, evacuating nearby buildings, minutes before the explosion.

About 10 people were successfully evacuated from Kaffeinate before the explosion, Zoldos said, but Lee remained inside. Out of respect for Lee’s family, officials did not elaborate on why he remained in the coffee shop.

At 10:05 a.m. on Wednesday, Kaffeinate posted on Facebook, “Due to circumstances beyond our control — we are CLOSED today. We will keep you updated on tomorrow.”

At 10:07 a.m., two minutes after the Facebook post went live, the Prescient building, located at 115 N. Duke Street, exploded.

Before Kaffeinate closed, there were reports of a strong gas odor in the area. Firefighters were dispatched to a gas leak at 9:38 a.m., where contractors were drilling and struck a 2-inch natural gas line in front of the building.

Dozens of customers posted messages of encouragement on the Kaffeinate Facebook page Thursday morning, saying they would keep the Lee family in their thoughts.

According to the Kaffeinate website, the Lee family moved to North Carolina in 1993. Kaffeinate, billed as “North Carolina’s most innovative cafe,” served specialty coffees, Belgian waffles and local pastries out of the intimate space.

According to Zoldos, five buildings were impacted by the blast, with the Prescient building suffering catastrophic damage.

Durham fire chief compares explosion aftermath to 9/11

At least 25 people, including nine firefighters, were injured in Wednesday’s blast.

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