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Most injured firefighters back to work after Durham explosion, local businesses face challenges

Nearly all of the firefighters injured in the April 10 blast in downtown Durham are back at work. 

All of the nine firefighters that were hurt in a gas line explosion that rattled Durham have returned except Darren Wheeler, who thinks he is ready to return, said Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos at a Monday press conference. Despite his wishes to come back to the team, doctors are not ready to clear Wheeler, as he was seriously injured in the blast, Zoldos said. It will likely be a “couple months” before he returns. 

“He looks good and is in good spirits,” Zoldos said, explaining he had visited him Saturday. 

The explosion near Durham’s Brightleaf Square destroyed Kaffeinate coffee shop, killed its owner—61-year-old Kong Lee—and left 25 injured. An investigation into the blast is ongoing and progressing, with Dominion Energy likely set to excavate the site in the next few days pending permit approval, Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said. 

The North Carolina Utilities Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation are both assisting in those efforts, Zoldos said. The Durham Fire Marshal's part of an investigation that entailed digging through rubble at the scene is complete, he added. The city is “still investigating what ignited the gas,” IndyWeek reported

“We know what a tough time this has been in Durham in the past 12 days,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “I want to again thank the first responders, who have been amazing.” 

Local restaurants and businesses have been hurt by the blast, including Torero's Mexican Restaurant and Saint James Seafood restaurant. They have been closed after their buildings were condemned, WRAL reported. Schewel said it is “critically important” for local residents to support nearby businesses, which have seen less foot traffic

A nearby parking lot has been closed since the blast, which Schewel said has caused the businesses to suffer, noting many other close options nearby to park. 

“These are wonderful businesses," Schewel said. "All these businesses are open, and we need to make sure we are down here supporting them.” 

Schewel also thanked Governor Roy Cooper for visiting Durham on Friday and “for promising he could do everything he could to get all federal and state aid we can get.” Cooper has requested financial aid from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

"Our thoughts are with the victims of this tragic incident, and state and local officials are continuing to investigate the cause of last week’s explosion," Cooper said. "We must also help businesses that sustained damage get back on their feet and back to work as soon as possible."

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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