On Saturday morning, Durham residents and officials gathered downtown for what was supposed to be a purely joyous occasion: a birthday party to mark the 150th anniversary of the Bull City’s incorporation. And while families enjoyed giveaways, performances, and a race to see which inflatable bull would make it down the American Tobacco Campus river the fastest, the celebration began on a somber note.
“I want to start out with a few serious words about the events of the past week,” said Mayor Steve Schewel. “We all know Durham has had a tough week.”
Three days earlier—on Wednesday, April 10, Durham’s actual sesquicentennial—just a half-mile away, an explosion triggered by a gas leak rocked Brightleaf Square, leaving a local business owner dead, twenty-five injured, fifteen buildings damaged, and many questions unanswered.
Schewel described arriving at the scene just moments after a building at 115 North Duke Street, home to the Kaffeinate coffee shop and construction technology company Prescient, had exploded, sending out a boom heard for miles.
“When we got there, our firefighters were already there, standing as far as I am from you,” he said, gesturing to the crowd ten feet away, “in this incredibly, incredibly big fire—this huge blaze was blazing and they were standing there bravely putting their hoses on it, some of them having recovered just then from the huge blast that had knocked them down. … There were people on the ground who had been hurt by shrapnel and glass.”
City officials said Wednesday that the gas leak occurred when an unnamed contractor struck a gas line while boring into the sidewalk outside the building, and identified the person killed as Kong Lee, Kaffeinate’s sixty-one-year-old owner. As the INDY went to press Tuesday, the city was still investigating what caused the gas to ignite and level 115 North Duke Street. No one had yet taken responsibility for striking the gas line.
A company called Fiber Technologies Networks LLC was the only company permitted to dig in the area at the time of the blast, according to city records. The permit authorized Fiber Technologies to work underneath many of downtown’s main arteries between June 27, 2018, and June 25, 2019. The reason for the work, according to the permit, was to “connect cell tower to aerial antenna poles.”
Prior to digging, companies are supposed to call 811, which then notifies utilities to mark their own lines aboveground. According to the 811 app, a company called PS Splicing LLC reported damage to the gas line at 9:28 a.m., about ten minutes before a 911 call was made reporting the leak. Under North Carolina law, a company that damages a gas line is required to report it.
PS Splicing didn’t respond to messages from the INDY by press time. Louis Panzer, 811’s executive director, confirmed that PS Splicing also notified the agency it would be working in the area of the explosion on April 10. The News & Observer reported Monday that the CEO of PS Splicing, Don Smith, lost an eye and suffered burns to nearly half his body in the blast, but was not performing the work himself.
Last week, Crown Castle, which owns Fiber Technologies, said the company “hired a contractor who was installing fiber in the area prior to the incident.” On Monday, a spokesperson for the company would not confirm that PS Splicing was that contractor.
Deputy city manager Bo Ferguson says the permit documents were prepared by a Charlotte-based engineering firm, Utilis, which may have hired subcontractors to do the work. (Utilis declined to comment further to the INDY, and a contact person listed on the permit could not be reached).
“Because we don’t have any direct relationships with the subcontractors, it’s not uncommon that we don’t know who is doing the work,” Ferguson says. “That doesn’t change the fact that the people who fill out the permits are accountable to the city for complying with the permit, for complying with the license agreement, and for complying with all city, state, federal applicable laws.”
Whoever hit the line smelled the gas and called 911, but seemed to underestimate the situation, at least initially.
“We have hit a gas service on North Duke between Main Street and Morgan Street,” an unidentified caller told 911 at 9:37 a.m. “We probably need a little police presence until the gas company can get here to shut the leak off. It’s just a gas service, but just to be safe until the gas company gets here.”
The explosion occurred at about 10:07 a.m., according to fire officials, blowing out windows on surrounding blocks. It would be another hour before the gas was shut off, because an employee who initially tried to shut it off was injured by the blast, according to PSNC, the natural gas company. The company has said it properly marked the gas line, but the scene was still inaccessible Monday morning, so that claim is impossible to verify.
Before the explosion, firefighters evacuated about a dozen people from Kaffeinate, “no question” saving their lives, Schewel said Saturday. They spoke to everyone in the shop, fire chief Robert Zoldos said at a press conference last week, including Lee, the owner. Lee didn’t immediately heed an evacuation order, Zoldos said, and a firefighter went to get a police officer to make him leave the store he had run with his children since 2017.
“That’s when the building exploded and collapsed,” Zoldos said.
“The last we heard from our dad,” Lee’s children wrote on Instagram, “he called us to tell us there was a gas leak outside and to let our staff and customers know we would be closed for the day. He was going to close up and make a sign to put on our door in case anybody came by later.”
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This is our dad. He had the biggest, purest heart out of anyone we know. He always wanted a cafe because he loved to serve people, and we were finally able to build him one. He loved being able to bring people something that would make them smile. The family we created at Kaffeinate made him so happy. We watched your smiles give him strength and joy. Thank you. Above all, he valued family, and he did everything to give us the best life he could. That means he often worked 12-13 hour days doing jobs no one else wanted to do. He never complained because he never wanted us to worry. That was our dad. – A lot of this still seems unreal, including the outpouring of love and support from our community. We lost the best dad we could have ever asked for. We lost our only source of income. Thank you to everyone who has wanted to and been able to donate to us to buy us time until we can figure out what’s next. I will post the link in our bio to a gofundme started by our friend. Thank you to the EMS, firefighters, police and everyone else who helped during the crisis. Thank you to everyone who is guiding us through this time. We admit this is all new territory for us and are not quite sure what comes after. – One note: our baristas are fantastic and also have lost their place of work. Please help us find jobs for them. Raymond will need a job also when he is ready. – The last we heard from our dad, he called us to tell us there was a gas leak outside and to let our staff and customers know we would be closed for the day. He was going to close up and make a sign to put on our door in case anybody came by later. He took such good care of the shop and was so proud of it. If you have any memories of him, please share them with us below. – Lastly, Kaffeinate is closed indefinitely. It always was and always will be for our dad. We’ve been discussing it and hope one day to be able to rebuild and reopen and bring his memory back to life. 아빠, we will miss you every single day. We love you so much more than you will ever know. – Please forgive us if we have not responded to you. It’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because we don’t know what to say. – Diana & Raymond
Nine firefighters were injured, including one who suffered serious injuries and had to undergo surgery, as well as people in nearby offices and on a private bus that was on Duke Street. Their names and conditions have not been released. Two restaurants—Saint James Seafood and Torrero’s—were condemned, and several West Village apartments were uninhabitable.
“We’re going to need to support [Lee’s] family and the family of all the people that were injured going forward,” Schewel said Saturday. “And I know that we will as a city do that.”
While it’s unclear exactly what went wrong Wednesday, it is clear that Bull City residents have heeded Schewel’s call: By Monday afternoon, nearly $200,000 had been raised online for people affected by the blast—restaurant workers now out of a job, families whose loved ones suffered injuries, and $140,000 for the Lee family.