17 were injured at the scene. A contractor was digging under a sidewalk and hit a gas line, causing the leak which lead to the blast and fire.
The explosion leveled on building and blew out windows all over the area.
Six of the victims are in critical condition. A firefighter was also seriously injured.
DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Emergency officials responded Wednesday morning to a gas explosion and fire at a building in downtown Durham, North Carolina, authorities said.
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The city of Durham tweeted that people should avoid the area of Duke and Morgan streets. The city said police and fire officials as well as those from PSNC Energy were responding.
There was no immediate word on any injuries.
Television station video showed flames jumping from windows along with heavy smoke and piles of rubble. The video showed a building with the name “Prescient” on it. The company’s website says its headquarters are in Durham and that its focus is affordable housing.
Police cars blocked the streets in several directions of the explosion and a thick acrid smoked hung over a shopping district near downtown Durham. Helicopters circled overhead.
Witness Donna Hester told WRAL-TV the explosion sounded like a bomb. She said she and others went outside, where a police officer told them it was a gas explosion. The officer advised them to go back inside, she said.
“It did frighten me,” she said. “I was all shook up because no one at the time knew what was going on.”
Another witness, Kelly Andrus, told the TV station she first thought the shaking was an earthquake. She said she looked outside her workplace and saw deep, black smoke billowing from the site. “I’d never seen anything like that.”