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Fatal Natural Gas Explosion Rocks Durham, NC

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Fatal Natural Gas Explosion Rocks Durham, NC
Nick Knittel / North Carolina Public Radio / WUNC.org

One person was killed and 17 were injured after a natural gas explosion in Durham, North Carolina Wednesday morning.

The explosion occurred at 10:07 a.m., about 30 minutes after firefighters responded to a 911 call reporting the smell of gas in the 100 block of North Duke Street, Fire Chief Robert J. Zoldos II told The Durham Herald-Sun. The firefighters had begun evacuating nearby buildings when the blast destroyed one building and damaged four others, sending up a plume of dark smoke.

"It looks like the front of the Pentagon on 9/11 — but on a very, very small scale," Zoldos, who was a first responder during the attacks, told CBS.


Witness Jim Rogalski, who was working in a nearby office, described the scene to CNN in a text message.

"Half the block is destroyed," Rogalski wrote. "Lots of injuries. Our office across the street was blown out. It was terrifying. Glass and debris everywhere. No one killed in our office but several injuries — deep cuts, head lacerations."

Zoldos told the Durham Herald-Sun that he contacted Dominion Energy, the company that supplies gas to Durham, after receiving the 911 call. Dominion tweeted that its subsidiary PSNC Energy "responded to a call about third-party damage to a natural gas line and the explosion occurred shortly thereafter." Additional PSNC crews shut off gas to the area following the blast.

"Our thoughts & prayers are with those impacted by this tragic event as well as their families," Dominion said.


Dominion has been the driving force behind the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would bring fracked natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion has said it will appeal to the Supreme Court after an appeals court tossed key permits for the project over environmental concerns.

For anti-pipeline group No ACP!, the explosion underscored the dangers of using gas as an energy source.

"They tell us gas is safe but it's clearly not," the group tweeted.

The cause of Wednesday's explosion is currently under investigation, the Durham Herald-Sun reported. Officials initially said it was caused when a contractor hit a two-inch pipe beneath the sidewalk, but later said they were still working to discover the cause.

"Until the investigation is complete, we don't know that's the source of the gas leak," Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson told the Durham Herald-Sun.

The building most damaged by the explosion was a former Studebaker dealership now home to several businesses including Kaffeinate coffee shop. It was the owner of that shop, 61-year-old Kong Lee, who perished in the blast, CNN reported.

Of those injured, one was a firefighter, one was an employee of Dominion who had responded to the initial leak report and eight were employees of Duke University, CNN reported. The firefighter was seriously hurt, but their life was not in danger, Zoldos said. Six of those injured were critically wounded.

The blast came as the city of Durham celebrated its 150th birthday.

"It's an irony, I know," Mayor Steve Schewel said as he praised emergency crews for their response, as CBS reported. "But what I will say about that is that what we hoped would be a very happy day it's not a happy day, but, again, it's a day when I am so proud of how our local government functions."

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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