A Durham, North Carolina gas explosion kills one person and injures others after a contractor digging under a sidewalk hit a gas line.
DURHAM, N.C. — One person was killed and at least 17 others injured from a large gas explosion Wednesday in Durham, North Carolina, that caused a partial building collapse in a downtown shopping district.
The explosion, which also damaged five other buildings, was caused by a gas leak that occurred when a contractor was drilling under the sidewalk shortly before 10:30 a.m., officials said.
Wil Glenn, a spokesman for the Durham Police Department, said the contractor hit a 2-inch gas line, causing the explosion that prompted the collapse of the two-story brick building.
The explosion took place on North Duke Street in an area near Brightleaf Square that includes former tobacco warehouses and industrial buildings that are now retrofitted as restaurants, shops and other businesses.
It resulted in a massive billow of thick black smoke above the collapsed building as flames pushed through its windows. The explosion’s force blew out the windows of nearby storefronts and shock waves could be felt several miles away from downtown.
“Looks looks like the front of the Pentagon on 9/11, but on a much smaller scale,” said Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos, a former 9/11 first-responder.
Officials are still investigating the cause of the gas leak, but drilling for an underground fiber network has been taking place in the area.
The city in July announced that private utility companies such as AT&T, Duke University, Google and Time Warner Cable would be overseeing the installation of new gigabit fiber throughout Durham. Officials have not released the name of the contractor.
A firefighter was among the people who were injured. Six of the injured have sustained critical injuries. Officials say all the people in the building are accounted for.
The Associated Press reported that the building is occupied by the construction engineering company Prescient Co., which announced 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.
Duke University employee Mary Williams told the Associated Press 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,” she said.
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.
Officials have urged people to stay away from downtown and they’ve closed the area around the blast to traffic. On Wednesday afternoon, the smell of gas was still prevalent.
At nearby Durham School of the Arts, students were dismissed early following the explosion.
A few hours after the blast, owners and employees of Main Street Durham’s restaurants and stores gathered in the empty dining room of the Federal, a local diner and bar, to make sense of the horror. News helicopters flew overhead.
The restaurant’s chef, Adam Barron, 37, said he usually arrives around 10:15 a.m. but was running late Wednesday morning. He was sitting in traffic not far from the restaurant when he saw the smoke.
Then an explosion rocked his car.
“I thought it was a bomb,” Barron said. “I’m surprised my windows didn’t break on my Jeep. If I was another half a block in, they would be gone.”
Nerly Ocampo, 22, was nearly three miles away from the site when she felt her windows shudder and house rock. Her two dogs started barking, and she thought something was going on with her neighbors. Then she got a notification her partner just started a Facebook Live video.
He was at Federal getting ready to help open when he heard the explosion and nearly fell over, she said. She then rushed downtown to pick him up.
“We’re all stunned,” she said. “You just don’t expect something like this to happen.”
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