Local News

Many contractors linked to location of Durham blast; one man in critical condition

Posted April 12, 2019 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2019 10:49 a.m. EDT

— The search for a source of the gas line cut that led to a deadly explosion in Durham leads to a complicated chain of companies and contractors, all involved in installing fiber lines outside of the Prescient Building.

It was there that a gas leak was reported Wednesday morning, followed shortly by the blast that claimed a life and injured 25 people. One of the injured, Don Smith, is the owner of the telecommunications company that reported the gas line cut.

It is not clear whether Smith was actively involved in the work that led to the line damage, but someone from his company, PS Slicing LLC, reported it. The NC811 app, which shows information about digging projects to prevent conflicts and accidents, shows that PS Slicing reported damage on North Duke Street at 9:28 a.m., 10 minutes before the 911 call was made to report that a gas line had been hit.

811 damage report, Durham gas explosion

In the call to 911, the person said, "We can smell it. I think it’s going into this little restaurant.”

An operator replied, "Help is on the way.”

By law, a contractor who causes line damage is required to report it to 811. That law reads:

§ 87-126. Notification required when damage is done.

(a) The excavator performing an excavation or demolition that results in any damage to a facility shall immediately upon discovery of the damage notify the Notification Center and the facility operator, if known, of the location and nature of the damage. The excavator shall allow the operator reasonable time to accomplish necessary repairs before completing the excavation or demolition in the immediate area of the facility. The excavator shall delay any backfilling in the immediate area of the damaged facility until authorized by the operator. The operator or qualified personnel authorized by the operator shall repair any damage to the facility.

(b) An excavator who is responsible for an excavation or demolition where any damage to a facility results in the discharge of electricity or escape of any flammable, toxic, or corrosive gas or liquid, or that endangers life, health, or property shall immediately notify emergency responders, including 911 services, the Notification Center, and the facility operator. The excavator shall take reasonable measures to protect himself or herself, other persons in immediate danger, members of the general public, property, and the environment until the operator or emergency responders arrive and complete an assessment of the situation. (2013-407, s. 2.)

A UNC Hospitals spokesperson told WRAL News that Smith is being treated in the burn center there, and that he is in critical condition.

Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said Fibertech Networks LLC, also known as Lighthouse Fiber Networks, had a permit to do work in the area. The permit was issued last June and was valid through June 25.

Fibertech is owned by Crown Castle. That company's website lists Baltimore, Cleveland, Ohio, and Philadelphia among municipal partners in the spread of fiber-optic networks. A spokesperson for Crown Castle said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the company is devastated.

"Fibertech Networks, which is owned by Crown Castle, hired a contractor who was installing fiber in the area prior to the incident. We have offered our full support and cooperation to Durham city officials. We are committed to working with the Mayor’s office to help the community recover," the statement said.

According to the city, Fibertech hired Utilis, out of Charlotte. Utilis is a company owned by Tower Engineering. Beverly B. Thompson, director of the Office of Public Affairs in Durham, said Tower was listed on the job at the time of the explosion and, she said, Tower hired the crew working on the ground that day. It is not clear whether they subcontracted that work and, if they did, to whom.

Durham explosion: Before and after

An attorney for Tower told WRAL News that an employee was injured in the blast, but, when asked, said it was not Smith.

Neither Tower nor PS Splicing has any OSHA violations in the past five years.

What is clear, from Facebook posts asking for prayers, is that Don Smith was severely injured in the blast.

Post on Facebook about Don Smith

The City of Durham Fire Department said Friday night that it has completed its work on North Duke Street and West Main Street, but North Duke Street from Morgan Street to West Main Street will not be accessible as the investigation into the blast continues.

Morgan Street is expected to reopen this weekend, following debris cleanup.