One chaotic hour in Durham: a strong odor, a vi­o­lent blast

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY JOSH SHAF­FER AND TAMMY GRUBB jshaf­[email protected]­sob­server.com [email protected]­ald­sun.com Josh Shaf­fer: 919- 829- 4818, @joshshaf­fer08 Tammy Grubb: 919- 829- 8926, @Tam­myGrubb

Duke Uni­ver­sity stu­dent Chris­tian Leonard was work­ing on his lap­top in an apart­ment near Brightleaf Square in down­town Durham about 9:30 Wed­nes­day morn­ing.

Jim Ro­gal­ski sat at his desk, along a row of win­dows, in­side a nearby of­fice on North Duke Street.

And Ja­son Sholtz was mak­ing a de­liv­ery for his cof­fee com­pany, So­ci­aBull Cof­fee Co., when he caught a whiff of a pow­er­ful gas odor.

“It was putrid,” he said. At 9:37 a.m., the first call about a gas leak reached 911 Durham dis­patch­ers. Just 30 min­utes later, an ex­plo­sion shook the build­ings for blocks in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

The shock blew out an eighth-floor win­dow at NC Mu­tual Life In­sur­ance, a tower three blocks away. One ex-sol­dier com­pared the sound to bombs in Afghanistan. When the smoke cleared, one per­son was dead and at least 25 in­jured.

Here is a re­con­struc­tion of what is known so far about Wed­nes­day morn­ing — an at­tempt to view the dis­as­ter as a whole. This ac­count is com­piled from po­lice and fire of­fi­cials, ac­counts of by­s­tanders caught in­side the smoke and rub­ble, and from the hun­dreds who shot pic­tures as they scram­bled to safety.

‘A LIT­TLE WORSE THAN WHAT I THOUGHT’

In the 9:37 a.m. call, a per­son work­ing on or near the gas line says, “we hit a gas ser­vice that’s on North Duke be­tween Main Street and Mor­gan Street.” The caller talks of smelling gas.

Emer­gency crews re­sponded to the gas leak in rel­a­tive calm, ac­cord­ing to ra­dio traf­fic. A four-per­son crew from Durham Fire Sta­tion 1 on East Mor­gan Street, about a mile away, ar­rived within min­utes.

But quickly, they re­al­ized they were deal­ing with a less-than-rou­tine prob­lem.

“Help us me­ter some of th­ese build­ings,” said an emer­gency re­spon­der on po­lice scan­ner traf­fic. “I think this leak is a lit­tle worse than what I thought.”

Durham Fire Chief Robert Zol­dos said fire­fight­ers went door to door evac­u­at­ing peo­ple from the Kaf­feinate cof­fee shop and sur­round­ing busi­nesses.

At Kaf­feinate, eight to 10 peo­ple in­side were cleared out — all ex­cept owner Kong Lee.

Lee’s chil­dren, Diana Lee and Ray­mond Lee, who run the shop with him, said in a state­ment on so­cial me­dia Fri­day that their fa­ther was mak­ing a sign to tell cus­tomers that the busi­ness was closed be­cause of the gas leak.

“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,” they wrote. “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.”

Zol­dos said he was “cer­tain there were peo­ple they saved” be­cause of the evac­u­a­tion ef­forts. Fire­fight­ers went to get po­lice to help get Lee out.

At 10:05 a.m., be­fore any of­fi­cers could re­turn, Kaf­feinate posted this mes­sage on Face­book: “Due to cir­cum­stances be­yond our con­trol — we are CLOSED to­day. We will keep you up­dated on to­mor­row. Thanks for un­der­stand­ing!”

Out­side the cof­fee shop, fire­fighter Dar­ren Wheeler prepped a hose in case of fire.

At 10:07 a.m., the build­ing ex­ploded.

‘IT’S KNOCKED DOWN A LOT OF THIS BUILD­ING’

An emer­gency re­spon­der can be heard talk­ing to a 911 op­er­a­tor, “We got a big gas ex­plo­sion. It’s knocked down a lot of this build­ing, and I’m pretty sure there was some­one in­side. The per­son I was hav­ing trou­ble get­ting to evac­u­ate, so you’re go­ing to need prob­a­bly two alarms here.”

Traf­fic cam­era footage from Durham’s “canopener” bridge a quar­ter­mile away shows the lens shak­ing for sev­eral sec­onds as the im­pact spread over the city.

“I heard a huge boom, and I thought light­ning struck my build­ing,” re­called Leonard, the Duke stu­dent. “I opened my blinds, and it was com­pletely sunny out.”

As Leonard scanned the streets, he saw fright­ened peo­ple run­ning away from his build­ing, though he could not see the source of the ex­plo­sion. So he climbed to the top of the nearby park­ing garage and stood about 100 feet from the re­mains of the build­ing, where flames burned bright or­ange and smoke rose hun­dreds of feet high.

He shot a video and posted it to Twit­ter at 10:27 a.m., one of the first and most telling pieces of footage. In the mid­dle of it, a voice can be heard say­ing, “Oh my God ... This is crazy.”

On the sev­enth floor of the Ch­ester­field build­ing, around the cor­ner on West Main Street, Mal­lory Foutch said things were chaotic in her work­place at Nu­tanix.

“We felt and heard a very significant blast,” she said. “It shook our en­tire build­ing. Our power went out. Our desks were shak­ing.”

Across the street from the Pre­scient build­ing, Ro­gal­ski sat in­side the Duke Health Devel­op­ment and Alumni Af­fairs of­fice, which has win­dows fac­ing North Duke Street.

“All of those win­dows were blown out,” he said. “Peo­ple were sit­ting at their desks and ceil­ing tiles were falling. Stuff flew off shelves. You could barely see any­thing for 25 feet from the dust. Peo­ple were scream­ing.”

Roughly 100 peo­ple work in that of­fice, and they had an emer­gency pro­to­col to fol­low. Though many were bleed­ing from deep gashes, they filed out­side into the street, which was strewn with rub­ble and clouded with smoke.

As Ro­gal­ski left the area, he caught sight of Sholtz, from the cof­fee de­liv­ery com­pany, in the street, stand­ing in front of the ru­ined build­ing with his hand on his head. He snapped a pic­ture of the man in red shorts and loafers, then sham­bled away while the wounded made ban­dages out of their shirts.

The dam­age stretched for blocks. The pic­ture win­dow had blown out at The Fed­eral Bar a block away. Cars sat aban­doned in the streets, their win­dows smashed. Sty­ro­foam sound ab­sorbers fell from the ceil­ing at Durham School of the Arts.

“I thought it was an earth­quake or a bomb,” said sixth-grader Ryan Fer­reri, 11. “It shook my chair. I banged my knee on the desk.”

Emer­gency crews poured into down­town blocks, crowd­ing around the Kaf­feinate build­ing.

‘WE NEED A MEDIC ... IM­ME­DI­ATELY’

The blast hit the first fire engine on the scene, Zol­dos said, blow­ing out its win­dows and dam­ag­ing the left side. But the truck kept pump­ing wa­ter.

Soon after, a re­spon­der is heard say­ing, “I have a fire­fighter in­jured on Duke Street. We need a medic at Main and Duke im­me­di­ately.”

Wheeler, the fire­fighter, was ex­posed the most to the blast and was se­verely in­jured, Zol­dos said. Fel­low fire­fight­ers pulled Wheeler and other vic­tims to safety, de­spite suf­fer­ing cuts, bruises, con­cus­sions and other in­juries in the blast. A sec­ond lad­der truck ar­rived shortly, block­ing the street, and an­other crew from Fire Sta­tion 3 on Mi­ami Boule­vard ar­rived to help.

Sholtz had been driv­ing less than two blocks away when the ex­plo­sion hit. He had smelled the strong gas odor, and he knew from the strength of the blast that it must have ig­nited. But he drove to­ward the sound rather than away, aban­don­ing his car and mov­ing to­ward Kaf­feinate.

“I just wanted to help,” he said.

The first per­son he saw was a woman trapped in­side a car near the fire and smoke, pinned to her seat by the air bag. She had cuts from glass and shrap­nel, Sholtz said, and he pulled the air bag aside to free her. He never got her name nor saw her later in the day, help­ing her off the street and mov­ing on.

Next he saw a fire­fighter on the ground. But as he moved to­ward the fire per­son­nel, he ei­ther grabbed or ran into a util­ity worker who was badly burned, his vest melted. Sholtz dragged the man away from the wreck­age and, tak­ing his cell phone, asked for a num­ber to call. He tried the man’s wife, then his mother, speak­ing to her on the street as sirens wailed.

“It’s what I would want some­one to do for me,” he said later.

Within min­utes of the ex­plo­sion, so­cial me­dia sites were sat­u­rated with pic­tures of smoke pour­ing into the down­town sky and fire­fight­ers climb­ing over de­bris to douse the flames.

At 10:40 a.m., smoke was still pour­ing from the ru­ined Kaf­feinate build­ing, and fire trucks had blocked off the scene.

“Let’s keep in mind we still have an ac­tive gas leak with an ac­tive fire,” said a scan­ner voice. “Go­ing to need to shut down Am­trak.”

A few blocks away, Jen­nifer Summe posted on In­sta­gram a photo she took look­ing out her win­dow. It showed a thick cloud of smoke against the blue sky, fill­ing most of the back­ground. And in the fore­ground of the pic­ture sat a to-go cup of latte she had just fin­ished, bought from Kaf­feinate shortly be­fore.

Leonard, Ro­gal­ski and Sholtz all sur­vived the day, al­most with­out a scratch.

But Kong Lee, the 61year-old owner of the de­mol­ished cof­fee shop who warned cus­tomers away 2 min­utes be­fore the ex­plo­sion, did not. The city and his chil­dren mourned him, say­ing his kind­ness and his joy in help­ing oth­ers made Kaf­feinate more than just a place to get cof­fee. It made Lee — the fa­ther of Diana and Ray­mond — feel like fam­ily to so many who met him.

Con­tribut­ing to this re­port were staff writ­ers Dawn Baum­gart­ner Vaughan, Lynn Bonner, Zach­ery Eanes, Drew Jack­son, Joe John­son and Mark Schultz.

JIM RO­GAL­SKI

The scene in down­town Durham after a gas ex­plo­sion that killed at least one and in­jured sev­eral Wed­nes­day.

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