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Coffee Shop Owner Killed, 17 Others Injured In Downtown Durham Gas Explosion

Nick Knittel

Durham police and fire officials confirmed one fatality from a gas explosion in downtown Durham that destroyed one building and severely damaged four others.   A firefighter was severely injured. He underwent surgery for non-life-threatening injuries on Wednesday afternoon and was recovering  by evening. The owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, 61-year-old Kong Lee, died as a result of the explosion, according to a Durham Police Department statement.


There was no one reported unaccounted for, according to Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos. In total, six people were reported in critical condition, including one who was transferred to the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center, part of the UNC School of Medicine.

The gas leak was first reported in a 911 call at 9:38 a.m.. Durham Fire Department personnel responded to the Duke Street area, and finding the significant leak, called for backup as well as for help from personnel from Dominion Energy.

During evacuation, the explosion occurred at 10:07 a.m., according to Zoldos.

"I feel a real sense of loss and grief. It's a very difficult day in that way," said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel during an afternoon press conference. "We've had a terrible tragedy today."

Schewel added that he was also felt a "tremendous amount of gratitude" for the police and fire personnel who went to the scene.

One of the leveled building's tenants was Prescient, a design and construction technology company.

"It's tragic what has happened," said Prescient chairman Satyen Patel said Wednesday morning, standing a few blocks away from the collapsed building that used to be his company's headquarters.

He thanked fire personnel for alerting employees to evacuate. "They fortunately asked us to evacuate, which we did," he said. "From an employee perspective at Prescient, every single employee escaped."

There were no severe injuries reported from the Durham School of the Arts, which is near the Brightleaf Square area, but the school will close on Thursday.

Other Damage

A portion of one of the rarest Porsche automobile collections in the world have been damaged in the downtown Durham explosion.

Some of the Porsches in the Ingram Collection, which rivals collections held by Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, and the Porsche museum in Stuttgart, Germany, are on display at 111 N. Duke Street in downtown Durham, directly next to 115 N. Duke Street, which collapsed after the explosion.

Some of the Ingram Collection was on display at the N.C. Museum of Art during its Porsche by Design exhibit in 2014.

The Porsches on display in Durham are part of Road Scholars, a Durham-based group that restores the German vehicles. A spokeswoman for Road Scholars said that no one from the company was injured, but did not know the extent of the damage to any of the vehicles. She also did not release a roster of the vehicles that were at the downtown showroom on Wednesday.

Road Scholars is renowned worldwide for its resoration work. The group restored a Gmund-Coupe for Hans-Peter Porsche, the grandson of Porsche and Volkswagon founder Ferdinand Porsche Sr. That vehicle won 1st in Class at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours.

Eyewitness Accounts

Jim Rogalski, 58, was working in his office across the street from the destroyed building when the explosion blew out the windows. At least four people working in cubicles along those windows suffered deep cuts, bloody head wounds and other injuries, he said.

"There was lots of screaming. ..." Rogalski said. "It was pretty frantic there for a little bit until help showed up."

Rogalski was seated one row away from the windows and wasn't hurt.

"It was terrifying," he said. "The whole building shook. Things started falling — ceiling tiles, and structure and glass and debris. Lots and lots of dust. It was tough to see beyond 20 feet or so."

The explosion came about 15 minutes after the office's human resources manager sent an email warning that the city's fire department was investigating the smell of gas and that workers shouldn't leave the building through the front door, he said as a friend gave him a ride home to Chapel Hill. Rogalski said he was forced to abandon his car in a nearby parking deck because authorities worried the blast may have weakened the structure.

Dominion Energy said in a press release Wednesday that subsidiary company PSNC Energy had received a call about "third-party" damage to a natural gas line in Durham. A PSNC worker responded, and the explosion "occurred shortly thereafter." The company said additional crews arrived and shut off the gas.

The firm added that its "thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families."

Blocks away, the blast shattered windows and blew at least one door off its hinges in the Brightleaf shopping district. Ed Rains was on a nearby street and couldn't see the blast but heard it. "I thought someone had dropped a dumpster on the street," he said.

Tracy Telenko was at his desk in his third-floor Durham office when he heard the explosion and saw black smoke billowing up.

"My first thought, because there was construction going on around my building, was something fell, somebody doing construction dropped something," he said.

Telenko said he went home after his boss told employees they could leave if they didn't feel safe in their office.


Credit Jason DeBruyn
Images taken after a gas explosion in downtown Durham.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
Jason deBruyn is the WUNC data reporter, a position he took in September, 2016.