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How Duke offices in Durham have handled aftermath of downtown explosion

Kristen Brown, Duke's associate vice president of news, communications and media, was in Page Auditorium on West Campus when she received an emergency alert of an explosion in downtown Durham.

“The first thought is an immediate sense of, ‘are people okay?’” Brown said. “Then it is, how do we take care of people? How do we recover from this?’”

A gas leak April 10 in Durham caused an explosion and a partial building collapse after contractors hit a gas line. The blast destroyed local coffee shop Kaffeinate and killed its owner Kong Lee. Other buildings on the block of Duke and Main streets were also damaged, including multiple Duke offices.

Several Duke offices operated out of rented buildings on the Main Street block. There were around 100 employees at 710 West Main Street—where the Duke Cancer Institute was located—and 700 West Main Street, which housed the Office of Alumni and Development Records and the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs.

Although the buildings were not destroyed, both of the West Main Street properties sustained significant damage, according to Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

Ten employees were also injured in the incident. Most suffered lacerations, and all were treated.

But there was another problem for Duke—where the nearly 150 Duke employees would work.

The need for relocation required Duke to find new office space in a growing Durham area, purchase new office supplies and computers and adjust employees to new commuting routes. 

“It's exciting what's happening in Durham, its life, its vibrancy,” Brown said. “But in times like these you realize that it's hard to relocate all those people in a city that is dynamic and growing. Everyone is looking for space.”

Duke has relocated smaller groups of employees to various locations across Durham, including the American Tobacco Campus. However, larger groups are still awaiting permanent relocation.

Brown explained that employees have been quickly adapting and flexible during the various relocations.

“Something like this that is unexpected and so powerful can be really scary and traumatic, and I'm so impressed with the leadership that I've seen at every level. I'm impressed with the resilience and spirit of our community,” Brown said.

Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for administration, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that Duke employees have persisted in their work after the explosion. He also reiterated Duke’s commitment to supporting employees and community members impacted by the incident.

“The resiliency of our team members has been remarkable. To their individual and collective credit, virtually all work has continued to move forward,” Cavanaugh wrote. “As you might imagine, this was a significant event, and Duke is doing all it can to support our impacted colleagues.”

Cavanaugh also paid respects to those killed in the incident and expressed appreciation for first responders who helped deal with the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

“Our deepest sympathies remain with the families of the two individuals who lost their lives as a result of the blast,” Cavanaugh wrote, referencing Lee and utility worker Jay Rambeaut.