Durham Building Explosion Coverage

Deadly gas explosion rocks downtown Durham

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On April 10, 2019 around 10 a.m., a gas leak led to a deadly explosion in downtown Durham. Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate, a coffee shop located on the bottom level of the Prescient building at 115 North Duke Street, was inside and died when the building exploded at 10:07 a.m.A PSNC worker who responded to the gas leak, Jay Rambeaut, died two weeks after the explosion from his injuries. The building was a total loss, and more than a dozen surrounding buildings were also impacted.

At least 25 people were injured in the explosion, including nine firefighters. The blast was felt for miles and left the Durham community shaken on the city's 150th birthday.

Firefighters were dispatched to a gas leak at the site at 9:38 a.m., where contractors were drilling and struck a 2-inch natural gas line. Robert Zoldos, Durham's fire chief, compared the wreckage to the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and said crews evacuated Kaffeinate, Prescient and surrounding buildings minutes before the blast, potentially saving dozens of lives. It is unclear why Kong Lee, Kaffeinate's 61-year-old owner, remained inside after the evacuation was ordered, but the coffee shop posted to Facebook moments before the explosion.

The building, owned by 2050 Bentley, LLC, housed Colorado-based software innovator Prescient, an engineering firm focused on sustainable construction. Prescient had occupied the building since 2017 and was named a 2019 “Best Tech Startup” in Durham by Tech Tribune.

Surrounding businesses closed and roads were blocked for hours following the blast, and the thick tunnels of black smoke and massive flames left the community in shock. Patrons, residents and owners of surrounding businesses, apartments and restaurants said photos fell off their walls at the time of the blast. Drivers in the area at the time of the explosion told WRAL News they weren't sure if what they felt was a bomb, a crash or something else.

On Thursday, opening night for the Durham Bulls went on as planned with a moment of silence and a special ceremony to honor the firefighters and other first responders who risked their lives to save others the day prior. On Saturday, the City of Durham celebrated its 150th birthday with a festival, bringing the community together after tragedy.

"We all know Durham has had a tough week," said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel at the event, praising first responders. "There were people on the ground who had been hurt with shrapnel and glass -- but our medics were there."

On Aug. 9, 2019, the Durham Fire Department released a 128-page report that ruled the explosion an accident and identified Optic Cable Technology as the company that punctured a 3/4-inch gas line while drilling horizontally to install underground cables.

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