IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

North Carolina gas explosion kills 1, injures a dozen

A contractor working downtown caused a gas leak that triggered an explosion, causing a fire and a partial building collapse.

One person was killed and more than two dozen injured, including nine firefighters, in a gas explosion Wednesday morning in Durham, North Carolina.

A contractor working in downtown caused a gas leak that then triggered the explosion on North Duke Street, authorities said. Kong Lee, 61, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, was killed in the blast, Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn said Wednesday night.

Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said at a news conference Thursday that eight to 10 people were inside the coffee shop and all but Lee made it out seconds before the explosion.

Lee was in the entranceway of the shop when the blast ripped through the building, Zoldos said.

Authorities responded around 9:38 a.m. to a call of a gas odor and immediately began an evacuation of surrounding businesses. The explosion occurred just after 10 a.m. as officials were helping people get to safety.

The blast caused a building to partially collapse and sparked a fire, which officials said had been contained.

Dominion Energy said in a statement that a contractor, who was not its employee and was not working on behalf of the utility, was doing excavation work and dug into a natural gas pipeline before the explosion. Glenn said the contractor was boring under the sidewalk and hit a 2-inch gas line.

Zoldos said Thursday that 25 people have been hospitalized, including nine Durham firefighters, one of whom suffered serious injuries.

Six people injured were critical and one was transferred to a burn unit, authorities said.

"We’ve had a terrible tragedy today," Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said. "I feel a real sense of loss and of grief. It’s a very difficult day in that way."

Durham Public Works said in a statement that the contractor was not with the city.

"No injuries of City employees have been reported, but we have received reports of injuries to the contractors employees," the office said.

Duke University said in a statement on its website that several of its employees were injured by shattered glass.

The firefighter who was injured, Darren Wheeler of the Durham Fire Department, was out of surgery Wednesday evening and was recovering from his injuries, Durham police tweeted.

“I'm extremely proud of the great work of the Durham Fire Department,” Zoldos said Thursday. “They are all doing great. They are obviously troubled by the fact that they could not rescue everyone.”

The blast damaged 15 buildings in the downtown area, authorities said. Officials said everyone who was inside the building where the explosion occurred has been accounted for, but that crews are still working to maneuver through debris, NBC affiliate WRAL of Raleigh reported.

Phill Grosshans told WRAL that he was walking in the downtown, moments before the explosion, when he heard a "gigantic blast" and was almost knocked to the ground.

"I was totally shocked," he said. "I had no idea at first what had happened.”

Grant Hall, who was also in the area, said he saw a "bunch of stuff shake," followed by a plume of heavy smoke.

The building where the explosion occurred houses several businesses, including the Colorado-based manufacturing and technology company Prescient, the Kaffeinate coffee shop and Main Street Clinical Associates.

A spokesperson for Prescient told NBC News that all of its employees were safe.

“We are grateful to the first responders and are working closely with the local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with all who are affected by today’s incident," the company said in a statement.

Durham Public Schools said in a tweet that the Durham School of the Arts was evacuated and will be closed Thursday to "evaluate the structural integrity/safety of the building." The school sits across the street from where the blast occurred.

In an earlier message on its Twitter page, the district said no students or staff were injured.

“We are deeply saddened by today’s tragedy,” Rodney Blevins, CEO of Dominion Energy’s Southeast Energy Group, said in a statement. “Our thoughts, prayers and sympathy are with the families of those who were injured and the deceased. Our focus now is working in cooperation with local agencies to ensure the area is safe for residents to return.”