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Victim identified in Duke steam explosion

Posted May 14, 2008
Updated May 15, 2008

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— A university employee, killed by a steam explosion at a Duke science building, was identified Wednesday evening as master steamfitter Rayford "Wiley" Cofer.

Cofer died in the blast that occurred just before 3 p.m. in the Levine Science Research Center, at the intersection of Erwin Road and Research Drive.

A steam line ruptured in the building's mechanical room, releasing steam, Duke spokesman Karl Bates said. The building uses steam from the university's power plant for heating and cooling.

“I can tell you that after the incident, the room was very hot. There's a release of water. The space in that portion of the building is very cramped,” Vice President for Campus Services Kemel Dawkins said.

Jing Jin and her colleagues were in the middle of an experiment when the blast happened.

“We just have to get out,” she said of her reaction after alarms went off.

The building was quickly evacuated, Bates said.

All building systems were shut down and sprinkler systems discharged, and Bates said a significant amount of water flooded the basement. The water will have to be tested before it can be pumped out, Dawkins said.

The testing is standard operating procedure when an explosion happens at a research center.

Once water is pumped out, the building will be inspected. The university will then determine if it is safe to restore power and reopen the building, Dawkins said. 

It was not known Wednesday evening what caused the explosion.

A resident of Franklinton, Cofer was a two-time winner of the Meritorious Service Award, one of the top employee honors at Duke. The 63-year-old received the awards in 2002 and 2004.

“It is a sad day for Duke,” Dawkins said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with [Cofer’s] family at this time.”

“It's horrible. It's worse for the family. But when an accident occurs and someone passes away, I think we're all, in a sense, in a state of shock,” John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs, said.

Cofer leaves behind a wife and stepson in Franklinton. He also had two sons who live in Georgia, family members said.

The 341,000-square-foot Levine building is one of the largest single-site interdisciplinary research facilities in the country, according to the school’s Web site. When it opened in 1994, it was touted as a "building without walls" that would foster collaboration across disciplines.

“This is a major research facility, and it houses animals and scientific samples,” Dawkins said.

The center includes classrooms, laboratories and offices and is shared by the Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering, the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the departments of Computer Science, Pharmacology and Cancer Biology and the Developmental Cell and Molecular Biology program.


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  • Adelinthe May 15, 2008

    What a shame!

    Great worker, 63 years old and almost at retirement age after working all his life.

    Praying for this wonderful man's loved ones.

    God bless.

    Rev. RB

  • allie1 May 14, 2008

    Wow! I was walking down the stairwell in Hock and saw all of the Firetrucks..made a comment about hoping our building wasn't on fire...didn't know... :(

  • Voice_0f_reason May 14, 2008

    Kind of sobering to me; I was working in this basement most of last summer, and would occasionally walk down by the mechanical rooms to stretch my legs.

  • Godschild43 May 14, 2008

    This is so sad . My prayer's goes out to this person's family.May God be with them.

  • For-Better-Or-Worse May 14, 2008

    so so sad............ :o(

  • Southern Fried Yankee May 14, 2008

    I've got 30 years in the business....and helped BUILD the plants as well as do QC....

  • davidgnews May 14, 2008

    Yikes. I used to work in that building.

  • thefensk May 14, 2008

    Correct, steam itself does not explode, but bottled up it can cause something akin to an explosion when it ruptures and the released steam will be much hotter than 212 degrees. Yeah, it isn't as hot as fire but that doesn't seem to matter much to you if you are burned by it. This is why your pressure cooker has at least one and more likely two or more safety features. I used to work around these steam lines at another university ... it can be scary stuff.

  • Southern Fried Yankee May 14, 2008

    Correction----steam doesn't explode. Pipes rupture, vessels rupture, water flashes to steam when under pressure and over 212 degrees in temperature, but steam does NOT explode....

    If it did my pressure cooker at home would have an ATF required license for use....

  • devilblue May 14, 2008

    I work in the building in front and saw 5 or 6 fire trucks, several Durham police and campus security. Now news helicopters are flying over my building. LSRC is halfway down Research Drive on the left.