EDEN — The explosion threw debris a quarter-mile away, damaged nearby businesses and rattled houses as far away as the Virginia state line.
Ed McCain, the manager of the local Papa John’s Pizza restaurant, was heading home from a late shift about 12:40 a.m. Thursday when he saw the KFC restaurant at 123 N. Van Buren Road explode.
“It shook my car like you wouldn’t believe, but there were no flames,’’ said McCain, 38, who watched a $10 bill float by amid the shower of debris.
“I was freaking out, and I just pulled over in the Sheetz parking lot,” he said. “I’m just happy to be alive.’’
The KFC closed about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and was empty at the time of the blast. No injuries have been reported, said Eden Police Chief Greg Light, who added that he felt the explosion at his house a couple of miles away.
Light said early on that investigators do not suspect foul play.
Officials are still investigating the cause, but employees reported smelling natural gas at the restaurant earlier in the night and witnesses said it felt like a gas explosion. Some described smelling sulfur, which is associated with natural-gas leaks, just after the KFC erupted.
Residents from as far away as Draper and Ridgeway, Va., reported feeling the explosion.
Randy East said he was taking an evening break outside the Sheetz convenience store across the street the KFC when the building blew to pieces.
“I was setting a cup of coffee down, getting ready to say something, and it blew the cup of coffee out of my hand,’’ said East, who worked in the gas industry for 20 years. “It sounded like a 155 round went off.’’
He said it was a gas explosion, “one massive boom where the gas built up in a pocket.’’
Security-camera footage from nearby Eden Drug showed a violent explosion that sent fire balls into the highway and adjacent parking lots. Witnesses said they saw a few fire flare-ups but mostly smoke and rubble.
“My trailer was just shaking,’’ said Joshua Harris, recalling the shock waves he felt at his nearby Kennedy Street home.
If ruled a gas explosion, it would be the third such disaster in the United States since April 10, when a major blast in downtown Durham destroyed four buildings, killing two people and injuring 25. Five days ago in Plantation, Fla., a gas leak caused a vacant pizza eatery at a shopping center to explode, injuring 20 people, officials report.
A slew of agencies responded to the Eden explosion: firefighters, investigators from the Rockingham County fire marshal’s office, Piedmont Natural Gas officials, and Greensboro-based agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with numerous other Rockingham County law-enforcement agencies and rescue workers.
Piedmont Natural Gas officials on Thursday afternoon said company technicians had completed testing all gas lines in the area of the KFC explosion and deemed them safe.
Gas lines to the KFC site were promptly shut off after the utility learned about the blast from Eden officials, PNC spokesman Jason Wheatley said.
By Thursday afternoon, demolition workers had razed the structure’s splintered remains, hauling away loads of timber, concrete, dry wall, roofing and debris scattered along the busy thoroughfare.
The 900-foot-long section of North Van Buren Road in front of the KFC between Moore Street and Stadium Drive was closed to traffic for about 14 hours.
Eden’s oldest restaurant, King’s Inn Pizza Parlor across the street from KFC, sustained blast damage to its trademark stained-glass windows, but opened for business by 3 p.m. Thursday.
The concussive force left several of the establishment’s diamond-motif windows concave and splintered.
By Thursday afternoon, crews had removed the compromised panes and sent eight windows to Union Grove for repair at Statesville Stained Glass, King’s Inn owner Bill Rhyne said. He said he expects to have the 50-year-old windows back in place in three weeks.
KFC officials said in a statement Thursday that the company plans to rebuild in the same location after officials conclude their investigation. The Eden restaurant employs 20 workers, roughly six of whom clocked out two hours before the explosion.
GREENSBORO — “Funk Queen” Betty Davis, with her daring personality and sense of style, was a pioneer for artists who couldn’t be easily categorized.
Her former husband, the late and legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, once called her “Madonna before Madonna.”
Backing Davis in the 1970s was a group of twentysomethings looking to make their mark. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would become pioneers, too: Carlos Morales (guitar), Fred “Funki” Mills (keyboards and vocals), Nickey Neal (drums) and Larry Johnson (guitar) — all hailing from her native North Carolina.
Morales, who died in May, was the only one from Greensboro. He would use his time with Davis as a launching pad to play with Julian Lennon, Natalie Cole and other well-known entertainers while living between California and London.
Suffering from chronic lung disease, he came back to Greensboro in recent years where he quietly lived out the rest of his life.
In a post on Facebook, Lennon said Morales gave him “some of the best memories anyone could ever have.”
This weekend, Mills and others are coming together in Greensboro to celebrate Morales with a musical tribute. That event coincides with the North Carolina premiere of “Betty: They Say I’m Different,” a documentary about Davis that includes footage of Morales and the rest of the band.
Ticket sales will benefit the guitarist’s parents, who are both in their 90s and live near N.C. A&T.
“A lot of people in Greensboro,” Mills said, “didn’t know how far he went.”
Morales, who played tuba with the Page High School marching band and briefly attended A&T, was a natural on the guitar.
“Most every musician realizes or knows that we didn’t choose music, music chose us,” Mills explained.
The easy-going Morales had musical tastes ranging from Jimi Hendrix to The Beatles, who he had seen on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Born Carlton Jr., to audiences he was known as Carlos.
“He had a drive,” Morales’ younger brother Michael said, “about being something more than a guy who played guitar here and there.”
Davis, who was from Durham but as a youngster spent summers in Reidsville with her grandmother, had already put together a touring band in 1975 when she went looking for another guitarist and found Morales. At the time, he was honing his skills in nightclubs across the state with a Greensboro group called the Mighty Majors.
“He had rhinestone eyeglasses,” recalled Mills, who lives in Durham. “He always seemed ready for the big stage.”
Once they started playing for Davis, things moved very quickly for Morales, Mills and the rest of the band.
“She was kind of like our big sister and she knew everybody,” Mills said.
While on the road, it wasn’t uncommon for the band to find themselves rubbing shoulders with celebrities such as comedian Richard Pryor, boxer Muhammad Ali and actor Roger Moore.
When Davis wasn’t touring, the group found a lot of work playing colleges and nightclubs on the East Coast under the name Funkhouse, and would become trailblazers in the funk era.
“It was their first success on their own,” said Phil Cox, the director and producer of “Betty: They Say I’m Different.”
Having already been established as “Betty’s band,” they got calls to open up for different acts, including funk groups Mother’s Finest and Graham Central Station.
After Davis was dropped by her record label, she decided to take a break from the music industry — which is chronicled in the documentary.
Meanwhile, the guys still found themselves in demand. That was until disco became popular.
It was the end of one era and the start of another.
“You never think it’s going to stop,” Mills said, “and then it does.”
The band went their separate ways, finding new projects and ways to collaborate with other artists.
Morales left for California and later London, and concentrated on performing as well as writing music.
Eventually, he would get the chance to write and record with John Lennon’s son, Julian, among other established artists.
“It was kind of like fate — or whatever you want to call it — put them together,” Michael Morales said.
According to Michael, a mutual acquaintance introduced his brother to Lennon. “He said, ‘Carlos, this is Julian Lennon. Julian, this is the best guitarist I’ve heard in my life.’”
A 1980s article in Rolling Stone magazine references Morales as a constant personal and professional presence in Lennon’s life, with notable contributions on his first album, which solidified the British singer’s status as more than the son of an icon.
“Carlos co-wrote three songs on that album and Julian recognized him, but he didn’t take care of his money, which happens a lot in this business,” Mills said.
Mills, a Vietnam veteran who served two tours before being hired by Davis at 28, retired from performing in 2014 not long after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
The band came back to Greensboro in 2016 — after not having been in the same room for decades — as Cox was putting the documentary together.
“There was just this loving energy between them,” Cox said of the footage.
Between 2018 and 2019, the band performed together after screenings of the documentary to help promote the film.
It was this past spring in Canada when Mills last saw Morales, who was noticeably frail.
“I kind of kick myself because I didn’t pay attention like I should have,” Mills said.
Mills recalled later sending Morales a text about an article he saw that mentioned Funkhouse. Morales never responded.
By then, his parents were taking care of him.
And then Morales was gone at age 65.
Michael Morales recently saw footage of the band’s performance at a music festival in France that had been posted to YouTube.
Performances of “Betty’s band” backing Davis is racking up millions of views on the channel.
“It’s good that they are getting the recognition that I think they deserve,” Michael Morales said. “That style of music ... that was the basis of funk. Carlos and Fred and those guys, they were right in the middle of it.”
Sunday’s benefit will be a reunion of the band without Morales. But they’ll reminisce as if he were there.
“I think he would say,” Mills believes, “it was a great journey.”
To the rescue: A Burlington family has adopted a kitten they saw get thrown out a car window. Page A2
RALEIGH — While Gov. Roy Cooper and many other Democrats are intent on expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, Republicans in the legislature fear Medicaid expansion becoming a fiscal disaster for the state and the country.
Since the federal Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, 33 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid. Additionally, voters in three more states have approved Medicaid expansion, but those states have not yet implemented the program. North Carolina has declined to go along, but some Republicans in the N.C. House have sponsored a bill that could expand government health insurance and that was moved forward by a committee Tuesday.
However, Medicaid expansion remains a major factor in the state budget stalemate between Cooper and the General Assembly. Here’s what you need to know about Medicaid expansion in North Carolina:
Medicaid is a federal health insurance program administered by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services for people who can’t afford insurance on their own.
A common misconception about Medicaid is that it provides bad health care, said Donald H. Taylor, Jr., a professor of health policy at Duke University. It is just a health insurance program like any other — patients with Medicaid simply go to doctor’s offices that accept Medicaid as an insurance plan for treatment, he said. The N.C. Medicaid Division of Health Benefits lists more than 3,000 primary-care providers in the state who accept Medicaid.
As it stands now, the federal government covers about two-thirds of the $14.8 billion program covering 2.1 million people in North Carolina.
Most people who currently qualify for Medicaid are people with disabilities, pregnant women or low-income families with children. Medicaid expansion would mostly benefit low-income adults without children.
Medicaid is different from Medicare, which is mostly aimed toward people over the age of 65, people with disabilities and those with end-stage renal disease.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” gives states the option to expand Medicaid eligibility to people who are below 133% of the federal poverty level, which in 2015 was about $2,743 a month for a family of four. (Some sources may say Medicaid would be expanded to 138% of the federal poverty level; that is also correct but uses a different methodology to calculate income.)
A study by the George Washington University, the Cone Health Foundation and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust estimated that 634,000 more people would gain Medicaid coverage by 2022 if North Carolina expanded the program in November 2019.
Medicaid expansion would address the “coverage gap” for a group of people whose income is too high to qualify for Medicaid right now but don’t have enough money to get federal subsidies for private insurance. Most of these people lack a primary-care doctor and often have to depend on going to the emergency room for all ailments, which is both inefficient and expensive for hospitals.
According to Cooper’s 2019-20 budget proposal, Medicaid expansion would cost $2.13 billion, with $1.91 billion covered by federal money.
Ninety percent of expansion would be covered by the federal government, and the other 10 percent would be covered by hospitals and health care plans, according to Cooper.
The federal government’s share is supposed to be covered by federal tax money, which North Carolinians pay anyway. Legislators opposed to Medicaid expansion have expressed concern that federal funding might eventually end.
Republicans who maintain that they do not want to expand Medicaid point to a number of reasons, including the national debt.
Instead of using that money to tackle the debt before it gets worse, legislators around the country are exacerbating the problem by expanding Medicaid, said Christopher Conover, a research scholar at Duke University’s Center for Health Policies and Inequalities Research.
“I think what we’re going to discover is in 10 years or 15 years, the feds are going to wake up and realize they can’t continue bankrolling these programs,” Conover said.
Legislators opposed to Medicaid expansion are skeptical of how much they can rely on the federal government to continue paying its 90 percent share. In 2018, cuts in federal money for North Carolina’s Children’s Health Insurance Program put pressure on the state to cover the deficit instead. Legislators opposed to Medicaid expansion fear the same thing will eventually happen with Medicaid.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program’s enhanced federal funding was designed to temporarily increase starting in 2015 to encourage states to expand their plans for children but was supposed to end in 2019. The federal government’s 90% match rate has no end date for Medicaid expansion. The legislation simply says the government will pay its share “for calendar quarters in 2020 and each year thereafter.” It would require authorization from Congress to change the match, which is currently unlikely.
Many states have passed legislation that would allow them to back out of Medicaid expansion if the federal match were to change, which North Carolina could do as well.
Cooper has held roundtable discussions with health care providers and business leaders to discuss the benefits of Medicaid expansion to the state’s economy.
One study predicted that Medicaid expansion could bring 37,200 more jobs into the state. Additionally, many expansion proponents say that premiums for people with private health insurance will go down once hospitals do not have to pay for uninsured people who use the emergency room and then cannot afford the bill.
Cooper has been persistent in his fight to expand Medicaid. But the Republican-majority General Assembly passed a budget in June that did not include Medicaid expansion, among other things Cooper wanted. He vetoed that budget.
“I stand ready to negotiate a true compromise. And to do that, everything — Republican priorities and Democratic ones — must be on the table. No one will get everything they want, but I know that if we come together and negotiate in good faith, we can do better,” Cooper said in a news release after his veto.
A new fiscal year started July 1. If Cooper and the legislature can’t compromise on a budget, state government will continue to run on last year’s budget.
The House Health Committee moved forward a Republican-sponsored health care compromise Tuesday that could expand government health insurance for people with low incomes.
The bill, known as NC Health Care for Working Families, Carolina Cares or House Bill 655, would expand health insurance for people up to 133% percent of the poverty line — with restrictions. Recipients of Carolina Cares would have to be employed, pay 2% of their household income in an annual premium, meet federal citizenship and immigration standards, and be active in preventative care.
The bill is sponsored by Republicans state Reps. Donny Lambeth, Josh Dobson and Donna McDowell White. Both Lambeth and White have experience in the medical field. White is a registered nurse and Lambeth was a hospital administrator.
While the bill is not the traditional Medicaid expansion championed by Cooper because of its numerous requirements, it is a type of Medicaid expansion, Taylor said.
“The word ‘Medicaid’ has been stigmatized by conservatives,” he said. “I do think it is Medicaid expansion.”
Conservative opposition is an obstacle to the bill in the N.C. Senate. Meanwhile, other critics of the bill say it is too stringent, especially because of its employment requirement, which they say excludes people who might be too sick to work. Taylor objected to the 2% premium, which he said would probably cost more to collect than the amount of money it would raise.
However, this compromise plan could be a good path to a deal, Taylor said.