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1 Dead, 25 Injured After Explosion That 'Shook' Downtown Durham

Updated: Thursday at 10:45 a.m.

In Durham Thursday, multiple streets remain closed after a gas explosion rocked the city's downtown Wednesday morning. The explosion reduced a two-story brick building into rubble and sent plumes of smoke billowing over the city.

The owner of a popular coffee shop in the building was killed, and 25 others were injured, including nine firefighters who were working to evacuate the premises.

At a news conference carried by WRAL, Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos commended the actions of those firefighters.

"Several of them were making rescues even after being injured — lacerated and so forth — after the explosion," he said. "So very, extremely proud of the great work of the firefighters of the Durham Fire Department and again, they continued work even after they were involved. They were victims of the explosion themselves."

One firefighter, identified as Darren Wheeler, was seriously injured in the blast, and underwent surgery yesterday afternoon. Officials say he's recovering well and is expected to be released from the hospital later today.

Updated: Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.

Durham officials say the fire has been contained and search-and-rescue crews are sifting through the rubble after a gas leak shook the downtown area, rendering one building to rubble and damaging five others. City officials say one person is dead and 17 others were taken to the hospital — some in intensive care — following the explosion Wednesday morning.

A large explosion has been reported in downtown Durham. City officials say the explosion is believed to have been caused by a gas leak.
City of Durham / Twitter
A large explosion has been reported in downtown Durham. City officials say the explosion is believed to have been caused by a gas leak.

A firefighter responding to the scene was among those seriously injured. The firefighter, who has not been named, had serious but not life-threatening injuries and is undergoing surgery, officials say. The identities of the other injured victims have also not been released.

Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said the explosion happened at 10:07 a.m. while first responders were evacuating buildings on Duke and Morgan streets, near Brightleaf square.

Zoldos said people in areas near the explosion have all been accounted for, but there are "still significant areas [authorities] have to search."

The cause of the explosion is still "under investigation," Zoldos said.

But Durham police said in an earlier news briefing that the explosion was "caused by a contractor who was burrowing under the sidewalk."

"He hit a 2-inch gas line which caused an explosion and also a partial building collapse," a Durham Police Department spokesman said.

The area surrounding the collapsed building has been evacuated, including Durham School of the Arts. Authorities are asking people to avoid downtown while authorities continue search-and-rescue operations, which could take days.

Dominion Energy said on Twitter that it has cut off the flow of gas to the area and that crews are working with local emergency response and county officials.

Video footage of the explosion sight showed dense plumes of smoke emanating from a deep pile of rubble filling about half a city block.

People reported Wednesday morning that the explosion shook neighboring areas.

"I am 1.3 [miles] away. It shook my house," Twitter user Dr. Violisto wrote. "Omg. I am near the fire station on 9th street I heard this huge sound it even shook my house! My lights flickered and then I heard a boom."

Wednesday marks the city of Durham's 150th birthday — a day that had brought city officials and residents together in celebration. But Mayor Steve Schewel said the day was one marked by both tragedy and strength.

"What we hoped to be a very happy day, it's not a happy day," Schewel said. "But I am proud of how our local government functions. I am so proud especially of our firefighters and their courage and their persistence.

"It's a sad day, but it's also a day that I feel a lot of gratitude and pride for the people that work for this city and this county and how well they did their job."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Durham Fire Chief as Chris Iannuzzi. The Durham Fire Chief is Robert Zoldos.

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