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Deadly gas explosion levels building in Durham, North Carolina

Durham gas explosion turns deadly

Firefighters responding to a natural gas leak were evacuating people from a Durham, North Carolina, building Wednesday morning when it exploded, killing one and injuring more than a dozen others, officials said. The victim was identified Wednesday night as Kong Lee, 61, Durham police said. 

Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said the blast at 10:07 a.m. involved five buildings on the block and catastrophically damaged one. Thick black smoke and a roaring fire was visible for miles, CBS News correspondent Errol Barnett reported.

"It looks like the front of the Pentagon on 9/11 — but on a very, very small scale," he said, noting that he was a first responder during the terrorist attacks. On Wednesday afternoon, jagged roof beams jutted out of the collapsed building, along with bent sheet metal, bricks and wood.

A massive stream of water from a ladder truck sprayed onto the remnants, draining down the street as firefighters walked past. Half of the caved-in roof cascaded into the rubble pile like a breaking wave.

The city of Durham tweeted that people should avoid the area of Duke and Morgan streets. Now that the fires have been contained, crews will begin search and rescue operations, Zoldos said at a news conference.

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Social media video shows the dark smoke from an explosion rocked downtown Durham, North Carolina, on Wed., April 10, 2019. Christian Leonard

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. 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. He said the cause of the explosion was still under investigation.

Mayor Steve Schewel praised crews for their response to the blast and noted that Wednesday was the city's 150th birthday. "It's an irony, I know," the mayor told reporters. "But what I will say about that is that what we hoped would be a very happy day it's not a happy day, but, again, it's a day when I am so proud of how our local government functions."

A contractor boring under a sidewalk had hit a 2-inch gas line, causing the leak, Durham Police Department spokesman Wil Glenn said. 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 along those 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."

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A building was leveled by a gas explosion in Durham, North Carolina, on April 10, 2019. WTVD-TV/NNS

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.

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. The firm added that its "thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families."

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.

North Carolina gas explosion reduces building to rubble
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