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One dead, at least 15 injured in downtown Durham explosion Wednesday morning

Durham Explosion
Firefighters actively fight a building fire after a gas leak lead to an explosion and collapse near Brightleaf Square Wednesday April 10, 2019 in Durham, N.C. (Julia Wall/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

Durham was rocked by an explosion Wednesday morning, when a gas leak in the 100 block of North Duke Street exploded, causing the building to partially collapse. One person is confirmed dead, and at least 15 were injured and taken to the hospital.

Wil Glenn, public affairs manager for the City of Durham, said the explosion happened around 10:27 a.m. and was likely caused by a contractor who was boring underneath the sidewalk and hit a two-inch gas line.

“I want individuals to avoid downtown at this time if at all possible. This scene at North Duke and Morgan could be going on for quite a while,” Glenn said in a press conference Wednesday morning.

Durham firefighters were called to the scene around 9:30 a.m., apparently after the construction crew hit the gas line. One of those firefighters and a Dominion Energy employee are among the 15 injured.

As of 6 p.m., one of the injured firefighters was out of surgery and recovering from injuries. The scene is now being handled as a search and rescue.

Ran Northam, community safety communications specialist for the Town of Chapel Hill, said the Town sent fire personnel to Durham to assist the Urban Search and Rescue Team, but he emphasized that this was just a precaution and not a confirmation of any missing people.

“At first it was such an unknown situation, that we sent and provided that extra personnel in case there were missing people or people who were trapped, or anything like that,” Northam said.

A Chapel Hill fire truck was dispatched to a Durham station as mutual aid, in case there were other routine fires while the Durham fire personnel were on the scene of the explosion.

The Durham School of the Arts, just a couple blocks away, was evacuated and will be closed Thursday to evaluate the structural integrity and safety of the building.

Durham Saves Water, a Department of Water Management site, tweeted that people may see cloudy or brown water, but added it’s safe to drink.

“This is due to extra demand on the system from @durhamcityfire as they battle the gas explosion,” it tweeted.

The city's water infrastructure was not damaged by the explosion.

The building itself was home to the headquarters for Prescient, a start-up working with building and construction technology. There was also a small coffee shop inside. 

Christian Leonard, a senior at Duke University, said he felt the blast from his apartment a few blocks away. 

“I heard a blast that sounded like the loudest thunder I had ever heard, and my room shook as if lightning struck my window,” Leonard said in a message to The Daily Tar Heel. 

Leonard said when he opened his blinds, he saw people scrambling in confusion outside.

“When I went to explore, I realized that there was smoke, and it was likely an explosion," he said. "I saw one guy with cuts all over his face, likely from glass. Another woman had blood running down her right leg.”

In a press conference, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel expressed gratitude toward the first responders but said he is also grieving on what was meant to be a celebratory day — Durham’s 150th birthday.

“This is the kind of day that you never prepare for as a mayor,” Schewel said.

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