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 blast occurred about 10:27 a.m. when a contractor boring under the sidewalk hit a 2-inch gas line, said Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn.
Fifteen people were transported to area hospitals, and the firefighter suffered serious injuries, he said.
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.”
Authorities are asking people to avoid the Brightleaf Square area as a fire is still active and an explosion has occurred.
“The ceiling tiles and structures collapse(d),” said 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 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. Any student 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.
This story is developing.