Fire chief: Coffee shop owner was told to leave before N.C. blast

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DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — The coffee shop owner killed in a North Carolina gas line explosion was last seen in the doorway of his business after firefighters evacuated his customers and told him to leave, as well, the fire chief said Thursday.

A gas leak ignited in Durham, North Carolina causing an explosion that injured 25 people and killed one. / (Source: Durham Fire Department / MGN)

New details about what led to the death of the coffee shop owner emerged as authorities raised the toll of people injured to 25, including nine firefighters.

Durham Deputy Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi said eight more firefighters were treated at a hospital, in addition to the one who underwent surgery. All were expected to be released Thursday.

Police said Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee, 61, was the only person killed in the blast that leveled the century-old building. The coffee shop was on the building's ground floor.

A gas leak had been reported about a half-hour before the blast Wednesday morning, and firefighters were working to get people out of nearby buildings. A Durham police spokesman has said a contractor boring along a sidewalk hit a gas line and caused the leak, but authorities are still investigating what made it ignite. City officials declined to name the contractor.

Fire Chief Bob Zoldos said Thursday that firefighters told people in the shop to evacuate and got about 10 customers out, but Lee apparently lingered and was last seen in the doorway.

Asked whether firefighters could have done more to convince Lee to leave, Zoldos said time is short during an emergency and firefighters had to move on to other structures and make sure anyone in danger was told to evacuate.

"We spoke with everyone inside his business including him and said that we were recommending evacuation of the structure, and we got everyone else out but him," he said.

Describing evacuation procedures generally, Zoldos said: "With time of the essence, we don't make a major case for it. We go in and say: 'you need to evacuate the structure immediately' because of whatever the incident is. And that's what our people did."

Zoldos said some of his firefighters continued to work the scene after suffering cuts from flying debris or other injuries from "the concussion of the blast wave."

A man who answered the door at a Raleigh home address for Lee told a reporter Thursday he didn't have anything to say.

Iannuzzi said at least 15 buildings were damaged by the blast, which happened in a shopping district downtown made of converted tobacco warehouses and other industrial buildings. Some windows were shattered blocks away. Authorities were inspecting the nearby businesses to determine when they can reopen.

Authorities say no one else was believed to be trapped or unaccounted for, but a search of the rubble was continuing as a precaution. Several dozen firefighters, state agents and other authorities could be seen at the site of the explosion Thursday, including one officer leading a search dog in and out of the rubble pile.

The destroyed building also housed offices for Prescient Co., a technology company focused on the building industry. Company officials said their employees were able to safely evacuate shortly before the explosion.

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