In the wake of tragedy and destruction, the CTSI community comes together

May 7, 2019

Durham gas explosion site Duke Street
The explosion site viewed from CTSI offices at the
Chesterfield Building two days later. Photo: Ben Miller

At 10:07 AM on Wednesday, April 10th, dozens of Duke CTSI staff working at the Chesterfield Building in downtown Durham were interrupted by a sudden cataclysm: there was a deep, resonant boom—like being inside a clap of thunder—and the entire 7-story building seemed not just to shake, but jump.

Everyone has a subtly different impression of that moment: some thought the building was collapsing from beneath, others thought an incredibly heavy object had crash-landed on it from above. But the Chesterfield’s windows overlooking the intersection of Main and Duke had a clear view of what was really going on. Less than a block away, a tower of flames and acrid smoke was rising from the shattered façade of the building housing Kaffeinate coffee shop.

The explosion has been widely covered in the local and national media, and we now know that it was an accident, the result of a gas leak. But in those first surreal moments any scenario seemed possible.

“It’s not like anything I’d ever experienced,” says Eve Marion, a Research Program Leader with the CTSI Community Engaged Research Initiative. Her first instinct was to run outside, fearing that something had happened at the nearby Durham School of the Arts, where her children are students.

Durham gas explosion Kaffeinate viewed from Duke CTSI
A closer look at the site on Duke Street, with the
Durham School of the Arts in the background. Photo: Ben Miller

Miraculously, both the Chesterfield and the school were spared any significant damage, but the blast claimed the life of Mr. Kong Lee, owner of Kaffeinate, a familiar and beloved face to many employees who frequented his shop. It also injured 17 people, including some Duke colleagues whose offices were even closer to the epicenter.

Later that afternoon, after CTSI had safely evacuated, another piece of bad news arrived. In an unrelated incident the day before, the home of Terri Taylor, Senior Program Coordinator in CTSI’s Workforce Development Core, was severely damaged by fire.

“When things like this happen, it gives you the ability to put things in perspective and remember what’s really important,” says Khatija Long, HR Manager at CTSI.

That’s exactly what CTSI, as a community, did.

Long was one of the first people to snap into action after the explosion—helping lead the evacuation, making sure people were accounted for, and communicating with CTSI leadership off-site.

Meanwhile, members of the individual units that make up CTSI were busy checking on each other and sharing information, a process that continued for days afterward. Marion’s group also had to consider the welfare of several guests they were hosting at the time of the explosion, whose cars were trapped in underground parking. “We banded together,” she says, quickly making decisions about how to evacuate, organizing rides, and getting everyone to safety.

“I have never worked with a group of people who, not knowing if our building was next on the gas line, could still be totally concerned for the safety of one another,” said Jenni Clark, Grants and Contracts Manager at CTSI.

Even before the smoke had cleared from the explosion, several staffers had turned their attention to the other disaster of the day: the house fire that had destroyed the personal belongings of Taylor and her family the day before. (Thankfully, no one was hurt physically.)

By that afternoon, efforts were underway to help the family recover from their loss. A donation drive among CTSI staff has helped them replace essential items, and helped Taylor’s 10-year-old son return to a semblance of normalcy, including replenishing his treasured collection of Calvin & Hobbes comic books.

“I’m grateful that people would donate and care about my family,” Taylor says. “It’s great to have a team around you that will step up.”

West Village Durham boarded windows
Boarded windows at the intersection of Duke and Morgan Streets.
Photo: Ben Miller

An overarching theme of people’s reflections on that day is gratitude—for their friends and co-workers, for the first responders who arrived on scene, and for the sheer luck of coming through these events unharmed.

“The police presence [at the explosion site] over the next few days was very positive and kind,” says Marion. “They were really supportive to people who came to talk to them.”

Tarun Saxena, a Pilot Program Manager with CTSI Accelerator, said he was impressed with the speed of the emergency response by fire, police, and medical agencies. “You can see how prepared and organized they were. It was a tragedy, but for an explosion that big to have only one casualty is amazing.”

CTSI has gotten back to work supporting the Duke research enterprise, but some things are not quite the same as before. There is a hole—both literally and figuratively—in the neighborhood. It’s a sobering reminder of the potential for disaster. But it also creates a daily opportunity to appreciate the strong community of people who arise in a crisis to help pick up the pieces.