Witness recalls seeing coffee shop owner putting sign in window seconds before Durham explosion

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The gas explosion in downtown Durham did more than break windows, topple buildings and damage Porsches -- it damaged lives.

Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, died in the explosion, leaving his family, friends and patrons at a loss.

"He's real friendly, real nice. He's always happy. You could see him. He was just always smiling. He always greeted everybody. He was a real nice guy," Kaffeinate patron Crystal Abauta told ABC11.

She was one of the people in the area who evacuated when she smelled gas Wednesday. She got away just before the blast.

"It sounded like a bomb exploding, really. That's what it pretty much sounded like. It was just really loud. It shook and vibrated everything," Abauta said.

MORE: Photos from the deadly day in downtown Durham

Lee was inside his coffee shop when the blast happened

Durham firefighters were dispatched to the area for a gas leak around 9:38 a.m. When they arrived, they called for backup and began evacuating the area.

"Eight to 10 people were in the coffee shop and without the incredible work of our firefighters to get them out immediately, they would have also perished inside the building," Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said.

The building exploded at 10:07 a.m. with Lee still inside.

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Zoldos said Lee was previously evacuated but decided to go back inside. Firefighters had just asked a police officer to come enforce the evacuation order at the coffee shop to get Lee to leave when the building exploded.

"I saw him put the sign--he was putting a sign in the window, and It said 'closed due to gas leak,'" Abauta said. "That's what I'm thinking: He was just going to put the sign and just go, but before he could get out it happened."

Tim Scales, a loyal Kaffeinate customer, says he's heartbroken. He was just two blocks away at work during Wednesday's gas explosion.

"As soon as we heard that there was a fatality my heart just sank," Scales said. "It just felt almost certain that it would be him. He was just such a fixture of that place that I associated that coffee shop with him."

So in tribute, Scales posted an image on Facebook that Lee snapped last summer of him and his son Emerson at Kaffeinate. Lee offered to capture the special moment as a keepsake.

"I just thought that was just such a sweet gesture and as soon as I learned the news I went straight back to that photo and it was a very touching memory of him and the kindness that he brought into the world," he said.

Molly Gehirng lived across the street from Kaffeinate in West Village and tells ABC11 she visited the shop frequently when she worked from home.

"He was just the most welcoming presence," Gehirng said.

On top of the loss of Kong, the explosion displaced Gehirng from her apartment.

"Minor inconvenience," she said. "My heart really goes out to the Lee family. The community is here for them when they are ready for help."
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