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A Durham, North Carolina gas explosion kills one person and injures others after a contractor digging under a sidewalk hit a gas line.
USA TODAY

DURHAM, N.C. — One person was killed and at least 15 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 was caused by a gas leak that occurred when a contractor was drilling to install fiber optic cable 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 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 building as flames pushed through the building’s windows. The explosion’s force blew out the windows of nearby storefronts and shockwaves 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 have not released the name of the contractor nor the fiber company. 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.

A firefighter was among the people who were injured. Fifteen people were transferred to two local hospitals. 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.”

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 explosion, owners and employees of the 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 saw sitting in traffic not far from the restaurant when he saw the smoke.

Then his car was rocked by an explosion.  

“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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