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Durham city officials: Investigation into cause of gas leak continues; fiber company had valid permit to work in area

Firefighters had told occupants of a Durham coffee shop to evacuate Wednesday moments before the building exploded because of a gas leak, officials said Thursday. The owner, Kong Lee, was still in the building when it exploded.

Posted Updated

Deborah Strange
, WRAL digital journalist
DURHAM, N.C. — Firefighters had just ordered customers and employees inside a Durham coffee shop to evacuate seconds before the building exploded because of a gas leak, officials said Thursday.
The shop’s owner, Kong Lee, was still inside the building on North Duke Street when it was leveled by the blast, killing the 61-year-old man. Officials said that a firefighter told Lee to get out and he would not leave the building. The firefighter was on the way to get a police officer to assist when the building exploded.
Latest developments
  • Main Street has reopened
  • 25 people were injured, including 9 firefighters.
  • Five patients were at Duke Hospital on Thursday: two in critical condition, two in serious condition and one in good condition.
  • Officials still haven't identified the subcontractor who hit the gas line before the blast.
  • 15 buildings were damaged, including one catastrophically.
  • Although inspections show that the Durham School of the Arts campus buildings are safe following yesterday’s gas explosion, extensive street closures in the area mean that the school will have to remain closed on Friday

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, 2019. He said the company was recently acquired by Crown Castle.

Utilis Engineering, a Charlotte-based company, is the company that submitted permits for the city's review, but Ferguson said he can’t confirm they were were the ones doing the work because they likely hired a subcontractor.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's database, all of the companies Ferguson named have no violations over the past five years.

A spokesperson for Crown Castle said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the company is devastated.

“We are devastated by this tragic event and its impact on the Durham community. We grieve the loss of life and our continued prayers go out to the people who were injured and their families. We are grateful for the first responders whose brave actions saved lives. 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.

Durham Deputy Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi said in a news briefing Thursday about 10 people were in the coffee shop when firefighters were going door to door around the 100 block of North Duke Street telling people to evacuate because of a “significant” gas leak.

The people who had been evacuated likely would have died had they still been in the building, Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said.

The complex housed the Lee's coffee shop, Kaffeinate; software innovator Prescient; Torero’s Mexican restaurant and Saint James Seafood.

The building that housed Kaffeinate and Prescient is condemned, officials said, and the building with Torero’s Mexican restaurant and Saint James Seafood could not be occupied.

Nine firefighters and 16 civilians were injured in the blast at 115 N. Duke St. Six people suffered serious injuries, officials said.

Duke University Hospital said that five patients were there on Thursday. Two patients were still in critical condition. Two people were upgraded to serious from critical condition, and one person was upgraded to good from critical condition.

Some firefighters continued rescue operations after they were injured until other responders arrived, Zoldos said.

Iannuzzi said he expected all hospitalized firefighters to be released Thursday.

Occupants of a Carolina Livery bus near the building were also injured, as were some Duke employees.

Carissa Bovee, who works at the nearby Retreat Massage, said she was sitting at her desk when the explosion happened.

Through the smoke and flames, a man came walking toward her.

"He kept saying, 'I have to go to the hospital, I have to go to the hospital,'" she said.

Bovee said she tried to calm the man down and stop his bleeding.

"He was walking by the building when it was exploding and he just had glass all in his arms and his face...and his beard was covered in dust and soot," she said.

Kate Meddis owns a nearby business and said she thought the area was being bombed.

"My immediate thought was, 'I'm gonna die'" she said.

The explosion and fire damaged 15 buildings, including the one at 115 N. Duke St., which suffered "catastrophic damage," Iannuzzi said.

Authorities were evaluating the buildings to determine if and when they could be occupied again. People with questions about reoccupancy can call the city of Durham at 919-560-4427, ext. 29600.

Investigators said K9s were used Thursday, but nothing was found.

Firefighters were first dispatched to the gas leak at 9:38 a.m. Wednesday. Contractors were drilling and had struck a 2-inch natural gas line.

Fire crews began evacuating the area, and the explosion occurred at 10:07 a.m. The building at 115 N. Duke St. partially collapsed in a manner that Zoldos compared to the front of the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

The contractor who struck the gas line was not a Dominion Energy employee and was not doing work on behalf of Dominion Energy, a spokesperson said in a statement.

Louis Panzer, the executive director of NC-811, the service contractors are supposed to call before digging, said the contractor was installing fiber network. He said he is confident all policies and protocols were followed by 811, which means 811 would have notified utility companies to mark where any gas lines are.

Durham Police spokesman Wil Glenn advised people to be certain any online donation sites like GoFundMe are legitimate before donating.

Drivers are advised to avoid the downtown Durham area and can use the Durham Freeway.

Road closures include:

  • Gregson Street at Morgan Street
  • North Duke Street at Morgan Street
  • Fuller Street at Morgan Street
  • North Duke Street at Main Street

Although inspections show that the Durham School of the Arts campus buildings are safe following yesterday’s gas explosion in downtown, extensive street closures in the area mean that the school will have to remain closed on April 12, officials said.


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