After Durham blast, 8 of 9 firefighters back at work, 3 restaurants remain closed

April 23, 2019

Plans by federal, state and local authorities to dig up the gas line that exploded in downtown Durham nearly two weeks ago didn’t begin Tuesday as expected.

Dominion Energy obtained a city permit to excavate the site of the April 10 blast on North Duke Street, and representatives of the Durham Fire Department, the North Carolina Utilities Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation will be on hand to determine if it can shed any new light on the explosion.

The explosion rocked Durham’s warehouse district, killing one man and injuring more than two dozen. At least two people remain hospitalized.

Kong Lee, 61, the owner of the Kaffeinate coffee shop in the building that took the brunt of the blast, didn’t make it out of the building in time. His employees and customers escaped at the urging of firefighters right before the explosion.

Durham Fire Department officials said that digging has been delayed, but they provided no further information.

Workers were on North Duke Street Tuesday to prepare for the excavation, which may take several days to complete.

Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said his investigators have a pretty good idea what caused the spark, but they won’t release that information until the investigation is completed.

Zoldos said Monday that eight of the nine firefighters injured in the explosion have returned to work. Darren Wheeler “looks good and is in good spirits,” Zoldos said, but doctors have said he shouldn’t return to work for a couple more months.

Kaffeinate and two nearby businesses, Torero’s Mexican Restaurant and Saint James Seafood restaurant, remain closed. The coffee shop was destroyed, while the two restaurants were so heavily damaged that their buildings have been condemned.

“We don’t know when we’re going to reopen,” Torero’s manager Emanuel Martinez said.

All 16 employees, including Martinez, are looking for new jobs, he said.

“I have a little bit of money in a savings account, but really, it’s not going to last too long,” he said.

Nat Jirasawad, whose SugarFish coffee and ice cream shop in Brightleaf Square wasn’t damaged, said he and other nearby businesses owners are seeing lower foot traffic after the blast.

“Especially in the morning, we probably drop 15 or 20 percent,” Jirasawad said, noting his staff is also losing out on tips.

Mayor Steve Schewel and other city officials encouraged people to patronize businesses in Brightleaf Square and the surrounding area.

“It’s really important now that all of us in Durham rally around these businesses,” Schewel said at a news conference. “All these businesses are open now. We all need to make sure we’re down here supporting them.”

A nearby parking lot remains closed during the explosion investigation, but Schewel said on-street parking and parking at a West Pettigrew Street parking deck is available.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday asked the U.S. Small Business Administration to make emergency loans available to the businesses that have been severely affected by the explosion.

Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said officials continue to work with insurance companies and property owners about clearing North Duke Street, but he said there’s no timeline yet on when the street will reopen.

The United Way of the Greater Triangle has created the Durham One Fund to support victims of the explosion. Donations will go to nonprofits that support residents after any form of unexpected losses or natural disasters.

Richard Meyers was running a downtown shuttle bus for Carolina Livery on the morning of the blast. He said Monday that he was waiting for passengers at the Duke Building, across the street from Kaffeinate, and remembers thinking it was odd that the coffee shop appeared to be closed.

“All the sudden, there was this huge force that came through, seemed like it came through the side of the bus,” Meyers said. “It was almost hard to explain the intensity. I felt like my bus lifted off of its wheels.”

The blast shattered the windows in the bus and blew off its doors, and Meyers said he was covered in blood and could barely hear.

“All I could see was smoke, flames and debris all over the place,” he said.

Zoldos said the first responders tried to block off Duke Street but were busy evacuating nearby buildings. A ladder truck that had to come from a fire station farther away was later able to divert traffic from the area.

He was taken to Duke University Hospital for treatment and said seeing his wife at the hospital was a gift.

“I remember on my bus right after the explosion, I said two things. I said, ‘I love you Jesus and I love you Gina,’ and I actually felt at that time that I wasn’t going to see her again,” Meyers said, choking back tears.

A passenger was on the bus at the time of the blast, but there was no information on that person’s condition.

Meyers is still removing shards of glass from his skin, has loud ringing in his ears and has to wear sunglasses because his eyes are sensitive to light. But he said he refuses to let his injuries slow him down or interfere with his faith.

“He has more work for me to do here on Earth, so he spared my life, and I’m grateful for that,” he said, adding that he eventually hopes to return to work.

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