Fire chief: Coffee shop owner was told to leave before blast in Durham

DURHAM, N.C. — The coffee shop owner killed in a Durham gas line explosion was last seen in the doorway of his business after firefighters evacuated his customers and told him to leave, as well, the fire chief said Thursday.

New details about what led to the death of the coffee shop owner emerged as authorities raised the toll of people injured to 25, including nine firefighters.

Durham Deputy Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi said eight more firefighters were treated at a hospital, in addition to the one who underwent surgery. All were expected to be released Thursday.

Police said Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee, 61, was the only person killed in the blast that leveled the century-old building. The coffee shop was on the building's ground floor.

A gas leak had been reported about a half-hour before the blast Wednesday morning, and firefighters were working to get people out of nearby buildings. A Durham police spokesman has said a contractor boring along a sidewalk hit a gas line and caused the leak, but authorities are still investigating what made it ignite. City officials declined to name the contractor.

Fire Chief Bob Zoldos said Thursday that firefighters told people in the shop to evacuate and got about 10 customers out, but Lee apparently lingered and was last seen in the doorway.

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Asked whether firefighters could have done more to convince Lee to leave, Zoldos said time is short during an emergency and firefighters had to move on to other structures and make sure anyone in danger was told to evacuate.

"We spoke with everyone inside his business including him and said that we were recommending evacuation of the structure, and we got everyone else out but him," he said.

Describing evacuation procedures generally, Zoldos said: "With time of the essence, we don't make a major case for it. We go in and say: 'you need to evacuate the structure immediately' because of whatever the incident is. And that's what our people did."


Zoldos said some of his firefighters continued to work the scene after suffering cuts from flying debris or other injuries from "the concussion of the blast wave."

A man who answered the door at a Raleigh home address for Lee told a reporter Thursday he didn't have anything to say.

Iannuzzi said at least 15 buildings were damaged by the blast, which happened in a shopping district downtown made of converted tobacco warehouses and other industrial buildings. Some windows were shattered blocks away. Authorities were inspecting the nearby businesses to determine when they can reopen.

Authorities say no one else was believed to be trapped or unaccounted for, but a search of the rubble was continuing as a precaution. Several dozen firefighters, state agents and other authorities could be seen at the site of the explosion Thursday, including one officer leading a search dog in and out of the rubble pile.

The destroyed building also housed offices for Prescient Co., a technology company focused on the building industry. Company officials said their employees were able to safely evacuate shortly before the explosion.

The explosion happened on North Duke Street near the Durham School of the Arts. No students were hurt. The school will be closed on Thursday.

“It was a humongous explosion, man, and it shook this house,” worker Danny Dadamo told Channel 9. “It was just unbelievable, man.”

Bubba Ellis was in Shooters Nightclub two blocks away. He and others rushed to help before firefighters could get to the scene.

“Like most people said on the TV already, I thought it was another (first responder). I didn’t know what type of explosion it was but just (there to) see if I could help,” Ellis said.

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"Our students and staff are safe in place at the school; there have been no injuries," Durham Public Schools said in a statement on Twitter.

Classes were dismissed for the day at the school. The schools' website said it has about 1,700 students in grades 6 through 12 and more than 135 teachers and counselors.

Television station video of the scene showed flames jumping from windows along with heavy smoke and piles of rubble.

“I fell down the steps,” nearby resident Ralph McCord told Channel 9. “I got downstairs and started looking around and the windows were blown out on the side, and I thought someone had dropped a bomb or something. I didn’t know.”

Duke University employee Mary Williams said she heard the explosion and felt shaking at her building a third of a mile away.

"I was in the kitchen. I heard this loud boom and the building shook. When I looked out, I saw the smoke billowing up. I was scared for whoever was in the vicinity because it did not look very good."

Another Duke employee in the same building, Sharon Caple, said in the minutes afterward the sky was darkened.

"All you saw was this black smoke," she said.

Check back for updates on this developing story. 

(The Associated Press and WTVD contributed to this report). 

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