EDEN — It’s been 19 days since an explosion obliterated the KFC restaurant here on Van Buren Road, but officials have yet to determine the cause of the early morning blast and won’t speculate about how long the inquiry will take.
Presumed by witnesses and some KFC staff to have been caused by natural gas, the blast erupted around 12:39 a.m., about 90 minutes after closing time. The business was empty and no injuries were reported.
Investigators, including Eden Police Chief Greg Light, Eden Fire Marshal Todd Harden and Greensboro agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have studied evidence from the scene since the day of the event. The authorities have also coordinated with Piedmont Natural Gas Co., natural gas supplier to the restaurant.
It is still unclear whether foul play has been ruled out as a cause of the blast that shook homes as far as Ridgeway, Virginia, and packed enough concussive force to bounce nearby residents from their beds.
Eden Police spokesman Lt. David Lamberth said Tuesday he could not comment about whether investigators suspect criminal activity. In mid-July, when asked if foul play has been ruled out, Light said in a written statement, “I would say the police department is still investigating the case.’’
Supplied with security camera footage from businesses close to the KFC, including 12 hours of videotape from Eden Drug, investigators have also combed for clues in the decimated fast food chicken restaurant’s rubble — a tangle of rebar, concrete and defunct kitchen equipment.
Kentucky Fried Chicken’s corporate spokesman Lori Eberenz said last week that authorities allowed the restaurant’s franchisee, Bacon Enterprises of Danville, to secure the blast site on the afternoon of July 11.
Though investigators did not grant Bacon Enterprises “full clearance” to the site, they were allowed to remove food items from the area on July 11 and July 12, Eberenz said, noting authorities allowed Bacon back on the blast site to remove oil from fryers roughly a week later.
“Due to the ongoing investigation of the cause, the franchisee does not have clearance and has to ask at every step, but there is action happening every day toward finding a cause in the short term and clean up and rebuilding in the long term,’’ Eberenz said.
Franchisee owner Bill Shelton of Bacon has declined to discuss the explosion and directed questions to corporate KFC officers.
Lengthy investigations are to be expected in such explosion cases, said Gary W. Jackson, a Durham-based liability law specialist with the James Scott Farrin law firm.
With experience researching the downtown April 10 Durham gas explosion that killed two people and injured 25, Jackson said determining blame in such cases can drag.
The Durham blast destroyed four buildings, damaged 11 more and caused at least $20 million in damages. As of May 6, authorities had not ruled on the exact cause.
The Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Public Service Company of North Carolina are among investigative bodies researching the how and when of the disaster.
“It’s not unusual to have people pointing the fingers at another party,’’ Jackson said of such destruction. He recalled the January 1988 gas explosion at the Winston-Salem Knollwood Street K&W Cafeteria, an incident that took 10 months for investigators to sort out.
Ultimately, authorities determined that Piedmont Natural Gas was responsible. Investigators found that a leak in a gas line joint caused natural gas to escape into the cafeteria basement. When a nearby water boiler turned on, the cafeteria exploded, destroying the 275-seat restaurant and injuring several people at an adjoining motel.
“...They (K&W and Piedmont Natural Gas) went back and forth on their respective positions on whose responsibility it was,’’ said Jackson, who has practiced law for 40 years and counts among his clients a first responder to the World Trade Center disaster of 2011.
If ruled a gas explosion, the KFC blast would be the third such incident in the U.S. this year, following the Durham explosion and a July 6 blast in Plantation, Florida, in which a gas leak caused the explosion of a vacant pizza eatery at a shopping center and injured 20 people.