Durham's Brightleaf District sets sights on future 4 years after deadly gas explosion

Sean Coffey Image
Monday, April 10, 2023
Brightleaf District proves resilience 4 years after deadly explosion
Two people died in the explosion, which destroyed half a city block near Duke and Morgan streets.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Four years after a gas leak caused a deadly explosion in Durham's Brightleaf District, the memories from that morning remain vivid for business owners.

"Literally real time, it was so visceral, you just didn't know what was going on," said Lewis Bowles, owner of Bull City Art & Frame Company. "And then after a couple seconds I know in my case, I said 'something big's happened.'"

Two people died in the explosion, which destroyed half a city block near Duke and Morgan streets.

While Bowles was able reopen after about six weeks, other businesses weren't so lucky.

Torero's Mexican Restaurant sat just in front of the explosion and was out of business for more than a year. Shortly after the restaurant reopened, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

"It was a very difficult situation for us, but we had to reopen the restaurant," said Torero's manger, Emmanuel Martinez. "So we reopened right in the middle of COVID."

Four years later, the blast site remains largely unchanged -- still a flattened, vacant lot. But plans announced last year would see a new, seven-story mixed-use development on the property.

Mayor Pro-Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton said the business community's resilience leaves him optimistic for the future.

"It's an incredibly resilient city," said Middleton. "This is a place where folks want -- not only to start businesses -- but move business to, they want to move here to work and because of our corporate citizens here. So the resilience of our city showed itself after the explosion, and its showing itself now after the pandemic."

Torero's, which was forced to move and is opening a new location around the corner from the blast site, is emblematic of that.

"Fortunately, we found this nice location where we think we're going to do even better. So maybe things happen for a reason," Martinez said.