Durham officials said Thursday that twenty-five people were injured in an explosion at a downtown Durham coffee shop, and at least fifteen buildings were damaged.
Emergency responders are continuing to search the North Duke Street site today, but there is “no indication” that anyone is trapped in the debris, says Durham Fire Department deputy chief Christopher Iannuzzi, and there are no reports of missing persons. Authorities had previously said seventeen people were treated at area hospitals in connection with the blast; they later added firefighters who sought treatment for injuries.
The damaged buildings are being evaluated for reoccupancy today. There is the potential for additional structural collapse and hazardous materials, Iannuzzi told reporters during a morning press briefing.
According to fire chief Robert Zoldos, there had been eight to ten people in the Kaffeinate coffee shop before the explosion, which took place at about 10:07 a.m. Wednesday, a half-hour after a gas leak was reported at the site. If not for efforts to immediately evacuate the coffee shop, “they would have also perished inside the building,” Zoldos said.
Firefighters arrived on the scene within “minutes” of a 9:38 a.m. 911 call reporting a gas leak on the 100 block of North Duke Street, he said.
Zoldos said firefighters made contact with Lee and advised him to evacuate seconds before the blast, which blew out windows on surrounding blocks. Lee’s “last known location” was in the doorway of the shop, Zoldos said.
Among the twenty-five injured are nine firefighters. One—Darren Wheeler—suffered serious injuries and underwent surgery. He is expected to be released today, Iannuzzi said. Details on the other firefighters weren’t immediately available, but Iannuzzi said they’re all expected to recover. People in nearby offices and a Carolina Livery bus on Duke Street were also injured, Iannuzzi said.
Firefighters continued rescue operations even after being injured by the concussion of the blast and debris, Zoldos said.
“They continued work even after they were involved,” he said. “They were victims of the explosion themselves.”
The gas leak occurred when a contractor digging in the area struck a gas line. What sparked the explosion is still under investigation.
City officials have still not identified the contractor involved. Deputy city manager Bo Ferguson said during the briefing that the city’s staff has identified all of the companies that were permitted to work in the area, but which one was boring at that particular time and place and struck the line is still undetermined.
“Those permits give them permission to come in without necessarily notifying us exactly the day and time they’re starting work so we wouldn’t have information specifically reported to us about who was working on the street today … We want to make sure how many permits might have been active at the time, and until we know that, we we’re not going to release it,” Ferguson said. Some information about what happened—like whether the gas line was properly marked on the pavement—may not be available until the site is more accessible, he said.