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Coffee shop owner killed in North Carolina gas explosion stayed behind, fire chief says

Kong Lee, 61, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, was killed in the Durham blast.
Kong Lee, center, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop in Durham, North Carolina.
Kong Lee, center, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop in Durham, North Carolina.GoFundMe

The Durham, North Carolina, coffee shop owner killed in a gas line explosion that leveled a downtown building stayed behind as firefighters evacuated properties before the blast, the city’s fire chief said Thursday.

"All the people in the business did evacuate other than the owner,” Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said Thursday.

"The owner decided that he did not want to evacuate, our engine captain went to find a police officer to enforce that evacuation order and that is when the building exploded and collapsed," the fire chief said.

Killed in the explosion Wednesday was Kong Lee, 61, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, police said.

The force of the explosion, which authorities said occurred after a contractor boring into a sidewalk ruptured a gas line, was felt or heard all over the city, witnesses said.

Search dogs were taken through the wreckage, but no other victims were found and no missing people were reported, Zoldos said. The investigation is ongoing, including into what caused the gas to ignite, he said.

Authorities responded around 9:38 a.m. to a call of a gas odor and immediately began an evacuation of surrounding businesses, officials said. The explosion and fire occurred just after 10 a.m.

Seventeen people were injured in the blast, including nine firefighters, officials said.

The most seriously injured firefighter, Darren Wheeler of the Durham Fire Department, underwent surgery and was expected to be released from the hospital soon, Zoldos said.

Charred remains are piled in a heap of rubble on April 11, 2019, in Durham, North Carolina, the day after an explosion and building fire caused by a gas leak.Gerry Broome / AP

Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said there was an active permit to do work at the location where the gas line ruptured.

All the other people, except for Lee, who were inside Kaffeinate when the gas odor was detected were evacuated before the explosion, the fire chief said.

"He was just making sure everyone was out, everyone was OK, and he was doing his job," Jennifer Oldham, the owner of a nearby business, told NBC affiliate WRAL of Raleigh. "We're just heartbroken for that family and his children."