Durham Police Department has identified Kong Lee, 61, as the only confirmed death from the April 10 blast that destroyed an entire building in downtown Durham, 143 miles northeast of Charlotte.
Lee owned the Kaffeinate coffee shop, which was at the epicenter of the explosion that has been traced back to a contractor drilling under a sidewalk. The work breached a 2-inch gas line, triggering a gas leak, according to a police statement. However, the exact cause of the blast is still under investigation.
Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos described the ruins as an unpleasant reminder of what the Pentagon looked like on 9/11.
The gas explosion hospitalized 17 people, with six in critical condition. According to the city, 11 people were transported to Duke University Medical Center and a further four to Duke Regional Hospital. Among the injured was a Dominion Energy employee and also Durham firefighter Darren Wheeler who had surgery and is now recovering.
Update on @durhamcityfire firefighter injured in today’s #DurhamExplosion. Our thoughts are with Firefighter Darren Wheeler as he recovers from his injuries. #publicservice #bullcitystrong https://t.co/1X37zSCa5z
— CityofDurhamNC (@CityofDurhamNC) April 10, 2019
Durham County Emergency Medical Services Assistant Chief Lee Van Vleet confirmed the injuries were sustained after the building partially collapsed and set on fire.
Professional Firefighters of Durham (PFD) announced on social media their colleague was in good spirits.
“Our brother is out of the operating room and doing well. Keep the prayers coming for a quick and full recovery, thank you all,” PFD wrote in a Facebook post on April 10. “In true firefighter fashion, our brother is cutting up and in good spirits.”
Our brother is out of the operating room and doing well. Keep the prayers coming for a quick and full recovery! Thank you all.
In true firefighter fashion, our brother is cutting up and in good spirits! The other members of E1 and some of L3 are being checked out as protocol but doing well.
Police asked the public to stay away from the area due to safety concerns and that affected residents would receive temporary accommodation.
“West Village-Toms Building is not habitable at this time. Residents who need a place to stay can visit Dominion Energy’s Claims Operations Center located at Maverick’s Smokehouse and Taproom (900 W. Main Street) to get a hotel voucher,” Police Public Affairs Manager Wil Glenn wrote on Twitter. “The claims center will be open until 11 p.m. It will reopen at 8 a.m. on April 11. Also, Gregson Street has been reopened.”
West Village Apartments: Toms Building is not habitable for tonight. If you need somewhere to stay please visit PSNC’s assistance center located at @MavericksOnMain to get a hotel voucher. pic.twitter.com/NUTRcvk3fr
— Durham EM (@AlertDurham) April 10, 2019
— CityofDurhamNC (@CityofDurhamNC) April 11, 2019
. @DurhamPoliceNC has opened a phone line to answer questions or concerns regarding the incident today. Please call (919) 560-4427 ext 29600 and not 911 (unless it is an emergency and unrelated) pic.twitter.com/70gQYOxguQ
— Durham EM (@AlertDurham) April 11, 2019
Staff and students at the nearby Durham School of the Arts were temporarily evacuated after the explosion. Classes were dismissed for April 10. According to the school’s website there are an estimated 1,700 students in grades 6 through 12 and more than 135 teachers and counselors.
Police cars blocked the streets in several directions from the explosion, a thick smoked loomed over a shopping district, and helicopters circled overhead.
Witness Donna Hester told WRAL-TV the morning explosion sounded like a bomb, reported The Associated Press. Another witness, Kelly Andrus, thought the tremor was from an earthquake at first, but when she looked outside her workplace, she realized it was the West Village-Toms Building from which deep, black smoke was billowing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.