(Reuters) – A fiery gas explosion triggered by a construction worker in Durham, North Carolina, leveled a building on Wednesday, killing at least one person and injuring at least 17, authorities said.
The blast, which occurred as officials were evacuating people from the area about a half-hour after a gas leak was reported, left five buildings smoldering in the city’s downtown on its 150th birthday, officials said.
“The fires have been contained and they’re under control but the incident is far from over,” Durham Fire Chief Bob Zoldos told reporters near the scene.
While all people who had been in the two-story buildings were accounted for, Zoldos said rescue workers will spend the next two days searching the fire-damaged buildings and sifting through the rubble of the one that sustained “catastrophic damage.”
Because some of the building space had retail businesses, he said he could not rule out the possibility of more victims. Officials did not immediately identify the person killed.
The blast sent 17 people to area hospitals, including six with critical injuries and a firefighter whose injuries were serious but not life-threatening, officials said.
The incident began with a report at 9:38 a.m. (1338 GMT) of a leak when a 2-inch (5 cm) gas line was ruptured by a contractor drilling under a sidewalk, officials said.
A half-hour later, as the area was being evacuated, there was a loud explosion that leveled a building, shattered glass on parts of Duke University’s downtown campus and erupted into flames that firefighters spent hours battling.
The local gas company, PSNC Energy, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy Inc, said in a statement that its crews had shut off the flow of gas to the area shortly after 11 a.m. (1500 GMT).
The explosion also prompted the evacuation of the nearby Durham School of the Arts, but caused no injuries, the school said. Durham Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said the school would remain closed on Wednesday while its structure is examined.
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel praised the efforts of first responders and noted the irony of the tragedy occurring on the city’s 150th birthday.
“It’s not a happy day, but, again, it’s a day when I am so proud of how our local government functions,” he told reporters.
Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by James Dalgleish