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911 Caller Noted 'very strong gas smell' Almost An Hour Before Explosion

The rubble after an explosion destroyed the downtown Durham building.
City of Durham

Exactly 58 minutes before a deadly explosion in downtown Durham, a driver called emergency personnel with the alert of a "very strong gas smell."

The driver – an unidentified woman – identified her location as "right there by the school," referring to Durham School of the Arts. She told the 911 operator she did not see anyone working in the area, but reported, "It's just a really strong smell of gas."

The explosion happened at 115 Duke Street at 10:07 a.m. Another 911 call from a utility worker came at 9:38 a.m. He gave more precise information about the location of the broken gas line. The explosion killed Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop on Duke Street, and injured 25 others.

Durham officials released the second call last week, and made the first call available Tuesday.

Durham Fire Department Engine 1 was dispatched to the area at 9:13 a.m. but firefighters did not immediately smell any gas, according to a press release distributed by the Durham City Manager's office. Firefighters canvassed the area, but kept the focus on the school area. The school's address is 401 N. Duke Street, though the southernmost part of campus is just one block from the explosion.

After canvassing the school area, firefighters went back toward the caller's original location at the intersection of North Duke and Morgan streets, but stayed on Morgan Street between Duke and Gregson streets, according to the Durham release. This would have put them around the corner from the eventual explosion.

Firefighters did not smell a strong gas odor, but did see a gas service at the rear of 710 W. Main Street – which faces Morgan Street – according to the release. Believing the smell identified by the caller was related to that service, firefighters cleared the call. The same unit would be dispatched 13 minutes later after the 9:37 a.m. call came through with more information.

"At this time, there is no explanation for the gap between the first reported gas odor received at 9:11 a.m. and the time that passed before the contractor's call to 911," according to the city release. "While our investigation is ongoing, an initial review of the actions of Engine 1 responding to the first report of a gas odor followed appropriate procedures, and showed diligence in attempting to verify the presence of a gas odor. This investigation is ongoing and a more detailed summary will be provided when the investigation is complete."

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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