Gas explosion kills 1, injures 17 others in downtown Durham

DURHAM, N.C. — A gas explosion killed one person and injured 17 others in downtown Durham on Wednesday morning.

A previous report from a city council member said a second person was killed. Fire Chief Robert Zoldos clarified that a second person was unaccounted for but has since been found alive. The fire chief added, however, that this does not mean that everyone is out of the building.

On Wednesday night, Durham officials identified 61-year-old Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate Coffee Shop, as the person killed in the blast.

One Durham firefighter was seriously injured but did not suffer life-threatening injuries. The Professional Fire Fighters of Durham tweeted Wednesday evening, "In true firefighter fashion, our brother is cutting up and in good spirits after surgery!"

A Dominion Energy employee was also injured in the explosion.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said several others are in intensive care.

Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said all students got home safely.

Durham School of the Arts, which is just a few blocks away, will be closed Thursday as officials work to ensure that the structure remains sound.

The explosion happened shortly after 10 a.m. Wednesday at 115 North Duke Street when a contractor hit a gas line, WTVD reported. That contractor was hired by Kaffeinate coffee shop and did receive the required permits before beginning work, according to North Carolina 811 Executive Director Louis Panzer. Panzer said an investigation into what happened will take place.

Five buildings were involved in the explosion. Zoldos described the collapse as like the Pentagon during the Sept. 11 attack, which he responded to.

Dominion Energy said it shut off the flow of gas at approximately 11:10 a.m.

Witnesses described a very chaotic scene in this popular area.

"I've never seen anything like it before," Robin Jarvi told WTVD. "I was sitting at the traffic light...and I smelled heavy, heavy gas. There were people in the building. I saw a business owner but a sign that said 'Business is closed for the day because of a gas leak.' As soon as I went through the traffic light, the whole building exploded."

Schewel said at a press conference, "We've had a terrible tragedy today. ... I feel a real sense of loss and grief. It's a real difficult day in that way."

He went on to praise firefighters and first responders for their work to address this incident.

Prescient Company leased the space starting in 2017. They are not the owners. It is owned by a West Coast real estate company called 2050 Bentley LLC. Kaffeinate coffee shop and Main Street Clinical Associates are also located in the same building.

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