Days after downtown blast, Durham celebrates its 150th birthday

April 14, 2019

Three days after a gas leak caused a huge fire and explosion in downtown Durham, city leaders, groups and residents gathered Saturday to celebrate the city’s 150th birthday.

It is a huge milestone for the Bull City, which threw a huge party for itself even as the city is trying to get back on its feet after the blast Wednesday that caused the death of one person and injured over two dozen others, including several firefighters.

“We all know Durham has had a tough week,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who recounted how he saw the city’s firefighters responding at the site of the gas explosion on Duke Street.

“A huge blaze was blazing, and they were standing there bravely putting their hoses on it,” he said. “Some of them (still) recovering just then from the huge blast that knocked them down.”

The mayor also praised the EMS, police and first responders.

“There were people on the ground who had been hurt with shrapnel and glass,” Schewel said. “But our medics were there.”

Fire Chief Robert Zoldos says nine of his firefighters were among the more than two dozen hurt during the explosion and fire.

“The citizens of this great city came out so strong to help us on that day,” he said. “Thank you very much.”

For a moment the celebration was silent – to remember Kong Lee, the coffee shop owner who died in Wednesday’s explosion.

As Durham turns 150, officials said the response by the city and residents reminded them of the Bull City’s resilience.

“It was amazing all the way around,” Schewel said. “And we have so much to be proud of.”

Authorities said Darren Wheeler, the most seriously injured firefighter, is in good spirits and has been released from the hospital. He has been ordered to avoid heavy lifting for six weeks, but Wheeler looks forward to getting back to work.