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A week later, we still don’t know who cut the line that triggered Durham gas blast

April 17, 2019 GMT

A week after the explosion that rocked Durham’s warehouse district, killing one man and injuring more than two dozen, there is no timeline on when the city will complete the investigation into what caused it. It is still not completely clear who hit the gas line outside 115 N. Duke St.

“The impact of this terrible tragedy is something we are still understanding and will be reflecting on for some time,” said Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson.

“There are some key interviews that have not taken place yet,” Ferguson said on Wednesday. “From Utilis Engineering, from Tower Engineering – we have asked them to confirm the crew. At this time, they have declined to confirm the crew.”

The North Carolina Utilities Commission also has a safety investigation into the explosion, and they too are still waiting on answers.

Utilis and Tower are just two of a web of contractors and subcontractors who had permits to do work in the city.

The Utilities Commission says the number of subcontractors that can be involved in these types of projects means a number of lawyers as well.

All of the investigators want to look closely at the hour or so before the explosion.

According to the city, a woman reported the smell of gas in the area at 9:11 a.m. Firefighters responded, but they could not locate the smell themselves.

At 9:28 a.m., an employee of PS Splicing LLC reported via the NC 811 app that a gas line had been cut. Ten minutes later, a call came in to 911 to report the same thing.

“We simply don’t know what accounts for that time,” Ferguson said. The city is also not certain the two 911 calls are related to the same event.

Louis Panzer, with NC 811, says workers must contact 911 as soon as it is safe if a gas line is broken.

“If there is a (gas) release, the law requires the first call be made to 911,” he said.

While the explosion is still being investigated, Ferguson said he believes preliminary findings show the city’s first responders reacted well.

Since the explosion, there have been no changes to city regulations around ordering an evacuation when a gas leak is suspected.

Ferguson points to a long history of safe operations. “The history of all of this utility work in Durham has been that there hasn’t been a series of tragic events. We had one terrible event,” he said.

The family for whom last week’s explosion was most tragic on Wednesday contracted with a Raleigh personal injury firm.

Kong Lee, 61, was the owner of the Kaffeinate coffeeshop in the building that took the brunt of the blast. His employees and customers made it out on the urging of firefighters right before the explosion. Lee did not, and he was the sole casualty of the event.

His family has hired Edwards Kirby, with name partner John Edwards, who is a former U.S. senator and Democratic candidate for president. Edwards’ swift political rise came to a crashing halt when his affair and child with a campaign staffer came to light, even as his wife battled breast cancer.

Before he ran for office, Edwards made his name in personal injury law, especially in suing tobacco companies.