The blast reverberated across the North Carolina city — turning one building to rubble, shattering windows blocks away and filling the air with acrid smoke. The owner of a coffee shop at the site of the blast was identified Wednesday night as the person who died.
Jim Rogalski, 58, was working in his office across the street from the destroyed building when the explosion blew out the windows. At least four people working in cubicles by the windows suffered deep cuts, bloody head wounds and other injuries, he said.
"There was lots of screaming. ..." Rogalski said. "It was pretty frantic there for a little bit until help showed up." Rogalski was seated one row away from the windows and wasn't hurt. "It was terrifying," he said. "The whole building shook. Things started falling — ceiling tiles, and structure and glass and debris. Lots and lots of dust. It was tough to see beyond 20 feet or so."
The explosion came about 15 minutes after the office's human resources manager sent an email warning that the city's fire department was investigating the smell of gas and that workers shouldn't leave the building through the front door, he said as a friend gave him a ride home to Chapel Hill. Rogalski said he was forced to abandon his car in a nearby parking deck because authorities worried the blast may have weakened the structure.
Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said the blast at 10:07 a.m. involved five buildings on the block and catastrophically damaged one. The leak had been reported a half-hour earlier, prompting the evacuations.
On Wednesday afternoon, jagged beams jutted out of the collapsed building, along with bent sheet metal, bricks and wood. Its roof had completely fallen in, and the partly caved-in roof of an adjacent building cascaded into the rubble pile. A massive stream of water from a ladder truck sprayed onto the remnants, draining down the street as firefighters walked past.
Now that the fires have been contained, crews will begin search and rescue operations, Zoldos said at a news conference. No one is unaccounted for, the chief said, but they'll use dogs and listening devices to make sure no one is inside the rubble.
The owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, 61-year-old Kong Lee, died as a result of the explosion, according to a Durham Police Department statement. A total of 17 people were seen at hospitals — six in critical condition and one transported to a burn center — Durham EMS Assistant Chief Lee Van Vleet said. Zoldos said one firefighter was seriously injured and in surgery but expected to recover.
A contractor boring under a sidewalk had hit a 2-inch (5-centimeter) gas line, causing the leak, Durham Police Department spokesman Wil Glenn said. Glenn linked the boring work to the explosion during a morning briefing, but Zoldos later said the cause was still under investigation.
Dominion Energy said in a press release Wednesday that subsidiary company PSNC Energy had received a call about "third-party" damage to a natural gas line in Durham. A PSNC worker responded, and the explosion "occurred shortly thereafter." The company said additional crews arrived and shut off the gas.
Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said boring for a fiber communications network had been underway in the area, but city officials were working to confirm whether it was connected and couldn't release the name of the contractor.
Blocks away, the blast shattered windows and blew at least one door off its hinges in the Brightleaf shopping district. Ed Rains was on a nearby street and couldn't see the blast but heard it. "I thought someone had dropped a dumpster on the street," he said.
Tracy Telenko was at his desk in his third-floor Durham office when he heard the explosion and saw black smoke billowing up. "My first thought, because there was construction going on around my building, was something fell, somebody doing construction dropped something," he said.
Telenko said he went home after his boss told employees they could leave if they didn't feel safe in their office. At nearby Durham School of the Arts, students were evacuated and classes dismissed for the day. Teacher Al Donaldson was walking through a hallway in a building about two blocks from the blast when he heard a loud noise, which concerned faculty and students.
"We didn't know the origin at the time," he said. "I was in the hallway, so I didn't so much feel it shake as experiencing a jarring sound." The collapsed building is occupied by Prescient Co., which said in July 2017 that it was moving its headquarters from Arvada, Colorado, and expected to employ about 60 executives, engineering and sales workers in Durham. The company uses specialized software to design and build precise materials that allow builders to assemble multistory apartments, hotels and other commercial buildings faster and cheaper.
Emery P. Dalesio and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh; Tom Foreman Jr. in Charlotte; and Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, contributed to this story.
This story has been edited to clarify that the explosion caused the entire roof of one building to cave in while the roof of an adjacent building partly collapsed.