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Family of Duke steam explosion victim hires attorney

Posted May 15, 2008
Updated May 16, 2008

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— The family of a man killed Wednesday in a steam pipe explosion at Duke University has hired a Raleigh attorney as concerns over workplace-safety begin to surface.

Rayford Cofer, 63, of Franklinton, was working in a mechanical room in the basement of the Levine Science Research Center when a steam line exploded, killing him.

"This is very early. Very little is known,” attorney Lacy Presnell said.

As Cofer's family copes with his sudden death, they are also raising questions about workplace-safety.

Cofer, whom Duke had employed since 2001, was told to "patch things" when they should have been repaired more extensively, Cofer's stepson, William Coble, said.

"That system was so old. They were constantly working on it, and patching it, and repairing it as needed,” Coble added.

The steam system is used in many buildings throughout the Duke campus. Vice President for Campus Services Kemel Dawkins said the school will launch a full investigation into why the steam line burst.

"We are assessing this and we are assessing any related issues that even remotely may be related to this incident and its causes and any other issues that this may raise," Dawkins added.

Presnell said Thursday evening that he has not had a chance to talk to Duke representatives. He also said no lawsuit was pending.

"There is nothing pending. There is nothing that has been done at this point. They've simply reached out and asked for assistance to help them gather information and investigate this terrible tragedy,” Presnell said.

The Department of Labor's Division of Occupational Safety and Health is also investigating. It could be up to three months before any conclusions are reached, a spokesperson said.

The Levine Science Research Center is a 341,000-square-foot facility that houses animals and scientific samples, as well as classrooms, laboratory space and offices for several science departments.

Cleanup was still under way in the building following Wednesday's rupture, but it reopened Thursday for most of the day.

It closed again Thursday evening for crews to do additional work, but Dawkins said it will reopen from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.

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  • doubletrouble May 16, 2008

    You know...some folks don't really have any lawyers on speed dial-and when something like this happens, dealing with estates, wills, etc..a lawyer is definately needed. Since the cause of death was not natural, and the victim also commented on the sad state of repairs the steam system was in-it only makes sense. Duke has it's share of seedy lawyers on the payroll. Documents can get missing very quickly, destroyed, etc..if a large institution/business has a fatality, with fault. I have worked in maintenance, and often was instructed to patch-vs-fix, due to cost constraints, overbudget, etc. Some unsafe operations are known, fixes suggested..and often put off via a business because it costs too much-till there is a fatality, then it's cover one's backend time. This gentleman was no novice of his trade. Hate to think he was killed, over a item he had requested to replace-vs-patch/aka...make due.

  • ncnatural May 16, 2008

    I can understand their anger, but the family is the one that went public about hiring the lawyer and possible legal action.they did not have to give this information to the news media. When you do this, you open yourself up to all sorts of speculation.

    What makes you think they did? The media is known to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

    Yes I believe the family is due compensation. We lost a love one to a tragic death, but money never crossed our mind. All we could think about was our loss.

    I can assure you....money hasn't crossed his wife's mind...

  • ncnatural May 16, 2008

    And your proof of this is what, exactly? Seems like the stepson is doing enough talking for the whole family. And just how do you think that the media found out about an attorney being hired if either the family, or the attorney, hadn't made that news public?

    My proof is having the pleasure of knowing this very kind man.

    This says a lot to me about the family... the poor man has not even been buried yet. Why not wait an appropriate amount of time for grieving ,or maybe they aren't grieving?? who knows...

    This statement is just wrong in so many ways.

  • beachboater May 16, 2008

    "Duke should pay, but they will have to be forced to do the right thing..It' sad to think that an institution of higher education would put the family through a court hearing..alas..THEY WILL"

    Uh.....the family is the one that hired the lawyer.

    Very sad situation, but my goodness.....at least get past the funeral before hiring sharks.

  • dogman1973 May 16, 2008

    I know what the score is: the guy likely was told he had a terminal illness several weeks ago. Knowing he couldn’t face his illness, he, with the help of his stepson, plotted out a way for the family to be well off for years to come….as a master pipe fitter, he would know how to cause an explosion in the aging steam system; thus, he could commit suicide and the stepson the next day would hire a lawyer to bilk Duke out of money! Great scheme….

    Of course who knows what the real deal is, but I know that I would not run to a lawyer or the news media the day after my loved one was killed in a freak accident. I would wait until at least after he or she was six feet under! Likely, if it went to trial, Duke’s attorneys would bring up the fact that the family was in a rush to sue. You have to be very mindful of how you carry yourself after anyone’s death or accident, because it could come back to haunt you!

  • countess May 16, 2008

    This says a lot to me about the family... the poor man has not even been buried yet. Why not wait an appropriate amount of time for grieving ,or maybe they aren't grieving?? who knows...

  • Vincenzo R. Abacus May 16, 2008

    Jeez people, OF COURSE they've hired an attorney. That doesn't in itself mean they intend to sue Duke. If nothing else, they're going to need help dealing with wills, insurance, and so forth. If I had a loved one pass away in such a manner, you can bet I'd want someone else with experience and a clear head to deal with all that stuff. And you can darn well bet that Duke's fleet of attorneys has or will be contacting them very soon - I wouldn't want to deal with them by myself either.

  • Counting Beans May 16, 2008

    Ma- basic "free" was $10,000, but who knows what he actually had or bought on his own. I hope he had a lot. My mother-in-law just passed away unexpectantly, and she never bought insurance or saved anything, but as a state worker, the benefits you mentioned earlier came to light and made it easier to deal with the financial stress of funerals and administration of the estate.

  • Arkansas Razorback May 16, 2008

    I am glad they have a company with deep pockets to sue.

  • carolinakhaki May 16, 2008

    "This poor woman is being hounded by the media and needs to be left alone."

    And your proof of this is what, exactly? Seems like the stepson is doing enough talking for the whole family. And just how do you think that the media found out about an attorney being hired if either the family, or the attorney, hadn't made that news public?

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