Durham fire chief cites lessons learned from deadly gas explosion

Wednesday, November 20, 2019
Fire chief talks lessons learned in Durham gas explosion
Fire chief talks lessons learned in Durham gas explosion

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Seven months after Durham's deadly gas explosion, Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos is reflecting on his team's response, which he says went extremely well.

A total of 97 firefighters responded to the chaos.

Zoldos said that for most of them, it was their first major disaster.

"I learned a lot about my staff. I was relatively new. I had just been here a few months when this happened," Zoldos said.

Two people died and 25 people were injured. Nine firefighters were hospitalized, including Darren Wheeler, who was seriously injured.

"We're thrilled to have him back. That was really the scariest moment for us. To possibly lose someone in the line of duty," Zoldos said. I think there's a lot of learning all of us could do as far as how to command control of such a big incident."

In a newly released report, Zoldos highlighted 11 ways his team plans to improve safety and response.

Among the top priorities:

  • All firefighters must wear the proper protective gear to keep them safe when responding to a hazmat scene, explosion or building collapse.

That did not happen on April 10. Some wore borrowed gear.

  • Effective immediately, more units will respond to the smell of gas downtown or in densely populated areas.

Rich Meyer, a Carolina Livery bus driver was parked across from the explosion on North Duke Street which, Chief Zoldos says was partially shut down. Moving forward, he said firefighters will feel empowered to fully close streets.

"Us stopping it a little earlier - 30 minutes earlier might have had a little bit more safety for us and we would not have had to worry about people in the street as well," he said.

Zoldos said the department needs a total of 75 firefighters to meet national and federal safety standards. He's working with the city to hire 15 each year during the next five years.