Many contractors linked to location of Durham blast; one man in critical condition

April 13, 2019

The search for a source of the gas line cut that led to a deadly explosion in Durham leads to a complicated chain of companies and contractors, all involved in installing fiber lines outside of the Prescient Building.

It was there that a gas leak was reported Wednesday morning, followed shortly by the blast that claimed a life and injured 25 people. One of the injured, Don Smith, is the owner of the telecommunications company that reported the gas line cut.

It is not clear whether Smith was actively involved in the work that led to the line damage, but someone from his company, PS Slicing LLC, reported it. The NC811 app, which shows information about digging projects to prevent conflicts and accidents, shows that PS Slicing reported damage on North Duke Street at 9:28 a.m., 10 minutes before the 911 call was made to report that a gas line had been hit.

In the call to 911, the person said, “We can smell it. I think it’s going into this little restaurant.”

An operator replied, “Help is on the way.”

By law, a contractor who causes line damage is required to report it to 811. That law reads:

A UNC Hospitals spokesperson told WRAL News that Smith is being treated in the burn center there, and that he is in critical condition.

Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said Fibertech Networks LLC, also known as Lighthouse Fiber Networks, had a permit to do work in the area. The permit was issued last June and was valid through June 25.

Fibertech is owned by Crown Castle. That company’s website lists Baltimore, Cleveland, Ohio, and Philadelphia among municipal partners in the spread of fiber-optic networks. A spokesperson for Crown Castle said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the company is devastated.

“Fibertech Networks, which is owned by Crown Castle, hired a contractor who was installing fiber in the area prior to the incident. We have offered our full support and cooperation to Durham city officials. We are committed to working with the Mayor’s office to help the community recover,” the statement said.

According to the city, Fibertech hired Utilis, out of Charlotte. Utilis is a company owned by Tower Engineering. Beverly B. Thompson, director of the Office of Public Affairs in Durham, said Tower was listed on the job at the time of the explosion and, she said, Tower hired the crew working on the ground that day. It is not clear whether they subcontracted that work and, if they did, to whom.

An attorney for Tower told WRAL News that an employee was injured in the blast, but, when asked, said it was not Smith.

Neither Tower nor PS Splicing has any OSHA violations in the past five years.

What is clear, from Facebook posts asking for prayers, is that Don Smith was severely injured in the blast.

The City of Durham Fire Department said Friday night that it has completed its work on North Duke Street and West Main Street, but North Duke Street from Morgan Street to West Main Street will not be accessible as the investigation into the blast continues.

Morgan Street is expected to reopen this weekend, following debris cleanup.