DURHAM, N.C. — One person was killed and several more were injured, including a firefighter, after a gas explosion and partial building collapse Wednesday in downtown Durham, North Carolina, police said.
The fire has been contained, but there were still hot spots as of midafternoon Wednesday, and a search-and-rescue mission is ongoing, officials said. It’s possible there are more casualties, Mayor Steve Schewel said.
The blast occurred about 10:07 a.m. when a contractor boring under the sidewalk hit a 2-inch gas line, said Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn.
Emergency responders, including the injured firefighter, were evacuating the area when the blast erupted, Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said.
Seventeen people were transported to area hospitals, six of whom were critically wounded, said Lee Van Vleet of Durham County Emergency Medical Services. One of the critically injured patients was taken to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill, he said. A Dominion Energy employee who responded to the initial gas leak was among the injured, police said.
The firefighter’s injuries are serious but not life-threatening, Zoldos said. He was in surgery early Wednesday afternoon, the chief said.
Authorities are asking people to avoid the Brightleaf Square area and warned that parts of downtown will be closed, possibly for a couple of days, as they conduct their search mission and investigation.
A witness described a scene like a war zone, with first responders scrambling to ferry injured people to safety after the blast.
“Half the block is destroyed,” Jim Rogalski told CNN via text message. “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.”
“The ceiling tiles and structures collapse(d),” added Rogalski, whose workplace is across the street from where the blast occurred. “Windows blown out a block away. Our office was filled with glass, dust and debris.”
A human resources employee told Rogalski and his co-workers that authorities were investigating a gas leak across the street and they should remain inside. About 15 minutes later, they heard what sounded like a bomb, he told CNN.
“The first second was stunned silence, then lots of scream(ing) in the building. Several of us shouted, ‘Is anyone hurt?'” he recalled. “The injured were quickly taken to an exit.”
Another person who works nearby said firefighters entered his building and told employees that workers had hit a gas line, and “we heard the big explosion right after they told us they may evacuate us.”
The blast shook the structure and blew out its windows, said the witness, who declined to give his name.
“It sounded like the building was going to collapse, and we left immediately,” he said.
Police arrived quickly, within about a minute, Rogalski said, and he went outside to find throngs of people and paramedics trying to help the injured. Firefighters soon arrived and pushed everyone back about four blocks in case of another explosion, he said.
“Paramedics pulled writhing people on the street to safety,” he said, adding that he saw bystanders using their own shirts to treat injuries.
The Durham School of the Arts is nearby and reported no injuries but said it was sending students home early. Students without transportation will be taken to the Brogden Middle School auditorium to wait for their parents, the school said.
The building where the blast occurred is a former Studebaker dealership that now appears to host other businesses, including a coffee shop and a mental health clinic. Aerial video showed the two-story building missing its roof and back wall, the inside filled with charred debris.
Four other buildings were damaged, officials said. The city observed the 150th anniversary of its founding Wednesday.