DURHAM, N.C. (AP) – A gas explosion that partially collapsed a North Carolina building and set it ablaze Wednesday morning killed one person and injured more than a dozen others, police said.
Police cars blocked the streets near the explosion in downtown Durham and a thick, acrid smoke hung over the shopping district created from remodeled tobacco warehouses. At least two ladder trucks sprayed blasts of water into the smoldering rubble nearly two hours after the explosion.
Durham Police Department spokesman Wil Glenn said a contractor boring under a sidewalk hit a 2-inch (5-centimeter) gas line, triggering the explosion. One person was killed and 15 were taken to area hospitals, Glenn said at a news conference. Information on their conditions was not available.
Jim Rogalski, 58, was working in his office across the street from the destroyed building when the explosion blew out the windows. At least four people working in cubicles along those windows suffered deep cuts, bloody head wounds and other injuries, he said.
“There was lots of screaming. …” Rogalski said. “It was pretty frantic there for a little bit until help showed up.”
Rogalski was seated one row away from the windows and wasn’t hurt.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “The whole building shook. Things started falling – ceiling tiles, and structure and glass and debris. Lots and lots of dust. It was tough to see beyond 20 feet or so.”
The explosion came about 15 minutes after the office’s human resources manager sent an email warning that the city’s fire department was investigating the smell of gas and that workers shouldn’t leave the building through the front door, he said as a friend gave him a ride home to Chapel Hill. Rogalski said he was forced to abandon his car in a nearby parking deck because authorities worried the blast may have weakened the structure.
The building exploded shortly after 10 a.m., about 30 minutes after firefighters were called to the scene of a gas leak, the city of Durham said in a news release.
Dominion Energy said in a press release Wednesday that subsidiary company PSNC Energy had received a call about “third-party” damage to a natural gas line in Durham. A PSNC worker responded, and the explosion “occurred shortly thereafter.” The company said additional crews arrived and shut off the gas.
Dominion said it’s continuing to work with emergency officials and more information will come out later. The firm added that its “thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families.”
A firefighter and a Dominion employee were among the injured, police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said in a news release.
Blocks away, the blast shattered windows and blew at least one door off its hinges in the Brightleaf shopping district. Ed Rains was on a nearby street and couldn’t see the blast but heard it. “I thought someone had dropped a dumpster on the street,” he said.
Tracy Telenko was at his desk in his third-floor Durham office when he heard the explosion and saw black smoke billowing up.
“My first thought, because there was construction going on around my building, was something fell, somebody doing construction dropped something,” he said.
Telenko said he went home after his boss told employees they could leave if they didn’t feel safe in their office.
At nearby Durham School of the Arts, students were evacuated and classes dismissed for the day. Al Donaldson, a teacher at the school, was walking through a hallway in a building about two blocks from the blast when he heard a loud noise, which concerned faculty and students.
“We didn’t know the origin at the time,” he said. “I was in the hallway, so I didn’t so much feel it shake as experiencing a jarring sound.”
The collapsed building is occupied by Prescient Co., which said 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. The company uses specialized software to design and build precise materials that allow builders to assemble multi-story apartments, hotels and other commercial buildings faster and cheaper.
A coffee shop in the building, Kaffeinate, posted a sign this morning saying it was closed for the day.