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Coffee shop owner, 61, was told to leave before North Carolina blast

A coffee shop owner who was killed in a North Carolina gas line explosion had been warned to leave by firefighters evacuating his customers, the fire chief said Thursday.

Kong Lee, 61, was last seen standing in the doorway of Kaffeinate on Wednesday as fire crews ushered his customers to safety. Lee was the only fatality in the explosion that destroyed his store and left 25 injured, including nine firefighters.

Durham Deputy Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi said eight more firefighters were treated at a hospital, in addition to the one who underwent surgery. All were expected to be released Thursday.

About a half-hour before the blast Wednesday morning, a gas leak had been reported and firefighters were working to get people out of nearby buildings. 

A Durham police spokesman said a contractor boring along a sidewalk hit a gas line and caused the leak, but authorities are still investigating what made it ignite. 

City officials declined to name the contractor.

Fire Chief Bob Zoldos said Thursday that firefighters told people in the shop to evacuate and got about 10 customers out, but Lee apparently lingered and was last seen in the doorway.

Asked whether firefighters could have done more to convince Lee to leave, Zoldos said time is short during an emergency, and firefighters had to move on to other structures and make sure anyone in danger was told to evacuate.

‘We spoke with everyone inside his business including him and said that we were recommending evacuation of the structure, and we got everyone else out but him,’ he said.

Describing evacuation procedures generally, Zoldos said: ‘With time of the essence, we don’t make a major case for it. We go in and say: “you need to evacuate the structure immediately because of whatever the incident is.” And that’s what our people did.’

Kaffeinate employees said on Facebook that the Lee family will speak to the media ‘when they are ready’.

‘We feel your support and love and thank you for it, but ask for privacy at this time,’ the post added. 

Shop workers also said the business will be closed this week. 

A man who answered the door at a Raleigh home address for Lee told a reporter Thursday he didn’t have anything to say.

Zoldos said some of his firefighters continued to work the scene after suffering cuts from flying glass or other injuries from flying glass. 

Iannuzzi said at least 15 buildings were damaged by the blast, which happened in a shopping district downtown made of converted tobacco warehouses and other industrial buildings. 

Some windows were shattered blocks away. 

Authorities were inspecting the nearby businesses to determine when they can reopen.

Officials said no one else was believed to be trapped or unaccounted for, but a search of the rubble was continuing as a precaution. 

Several dozen firefighters, state agents and other authorities could be seen at the site of the explosion on Thursday, including one officer leading a search dog in and out of the rubble pile.

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