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What has Durham learned from last year’s fatal gas pipeline explosion?

Nearly a year ago, a natural gas pipeline exploded in downtown Durham, killing two people, injuring 25 others and damaging more than a dozen buildings. 

One of those buildings was Saint James Seafood. When the pipeline blew up, the restaurant’s glass windows shattered and gold chandeliers crashed to the ground. 

After 10 months of work repairing the building and worrying what the future held for him and his employees, Saint James owner Matt Kelly reopened the restaurant in late January.

He held a dinner for first responders who were there the day of the explosion to thank them for risking their lives. 

“I don’t think anyone could ask more of what that group of people did that day,” he said. 

Those responders say they’ve learned from the disaster and have outlined ways to help prevent it from happening again. 

In November, Durham County Emergency Management released a “Lessons Learned Report” about policy changes that have taken place since the deadly explosion, including improving communication with the public and other agencies in times of disaster and educating the public and responders about natural gas as downtown Durham grows. 

“The way that Durham’s building up, it is kind of changing our way of thinking, knowing that we’ve got a huge shift in population to downtown and everything that goes along with that,” said Jim Groves, the city’s emergency management director. 

Natural gas pipeline leaks and incidents are fairly common throughout the U.S.; most are caused by excavation work like digging utility lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. North Carolina has had 44 natural gas-related pipeline incidents in the past 20 years, but April’s explosion were the first deaths ever recorded in the state.

While laying fiber optic cable on North Duke Street on the morning of April 10, 2019, Optic Cable Technology hit a ¾-inch natural gas pipeline distribution line at the intersection of North Duke Street and West Main Street, causing a gas leak. 

About an hour later, the pipeline exploded, nearly leveling the block. Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee was killed, and Jay Rambeaut, a PSNC Energy worker, died two weeks later. 

A Durham fire department investigation found that the explosion was an accident. But the contractors working that day faced some responsibility: The North Carolina Labor Department fined Optic Cable Technology $7,000 for failing to immediately contact authorities after damaging the line, and another $7,000 for failing to dig a test hole to determine where the pipeline was.

The agency also fined PS Splicing $2,100 for failing “to perform frequent and regular inspections of the site” and PSNC Energy, a subsidiary utility of Dominion Energy, $5,000 for “ineffective response procedures” that exposed a first responder to fire and hazards. The energy company disagreed with the state’s findings. 

The fire department’s report stated that communication systems between city, county, and state agencies about such incidents need to improve. Groves said that on the day of the explosion, Durham public information officials were distracted by the city’s 150th anniversary celebration party downtown, which slowed communication with the public. The delay in reporting the leak made response difficult and more dangerous. 

City and county managers have also developed an initiative for a joint crisis communication plan to more efficiently and uniformly release emergency information to the public through social media and public information officers—a process that was too chaotic on the day of the explosion, according to officials. 

After 10 months of repairs from the natural gas pipeline explosion, Saint James Seafood reopened in January. Photo by Corey Pilson

Still, city policies for the supervision of contractors working near natural gas lines “haven’t changed” since the explosion, said Durham city manager Thomas Bonfield. The state government has jurisdiction over underground development like laying fiber, so the county and city have no authority to send inspectors to monitor work more closely, he said. 

Groves said he wants Durham residents to feel safe downtown, because although natural gas lines can burst or leak, they can typically be prevented if they are reported immediately. 

He said if people “smell [gas], or if they hear a loud hissing, when they call 911 and law enforcement gets there and they give them directions to evacuate — listen and take immediate action.”  

Durham Fire Department chief Robert Zoldos said the fire department came up with 11 points of improvement since the explosion, including more training for hazardous materials situations like the pipeline leak and assigning full time drivers to the hazmat units.

The department also reopened a downtown fire department unit, Rescue One, which specializes in rescues above general expectations of a firefighter, including hazardous material cases. 

“All of those things will provide us with a little better response than we had before—not perfect, but much better than we had,” Zoldos said.  

The Lessons Learned Report offered some closure to Saint James and other businesses. 

“When that came out it was definitely a relief that there was a direction of some blame and that what happened was very thoroughly investigated,” Kelly said.

The block remains quiet since several businesses in the area are still closed. The United Way of the Greater Triangle is hosting fundraisers and looking for grants to help businesses get back on their feet. Kelly said he and others are optimistic the city can keep moving forward.

“We encourage people to come back,” Kelly said. “The Brightleaf area really just wants normalcy, and we’re waiting for our friends next door, Torero’s, to reopen, and get this block back in business.” 

Top Photo: Emergency responders on the scene of the April 10, 2019 fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in downtown Durham. Photo by Katie Nelson

Weeks into McDougald Terrace evacuation, a mother yearns for normalcy

When Shimey Harvey first found out she was getting a public housing apartment at McDougald Terrace three years ago, she rejoiced.  

Harvey was living with her best friend in Chapel Hill, sharing a single bedroom with her daughter and son. She worked the night shift at Cruizers, a gas station chain, and got a call from the Durham Housing Authority when she returned home one morning.  

“They said, ‘Your lease is ready to be signed’,” Harvey remembered. “I said, ‘I’ll be there!’”  

That day, she signed a lease for a three-bedroom apartment in the city’s oldest and largest public lodging, a site long plagued by substandard conditions. But to Harvey, the apartment was a new beginning.  

“I cried by myself for an hour after I got back to Chapel Hill,” Harvey said. “It had been so long since I had my own space.”  

When her son Robert, then eight, got home from school that day, Harvey put an envelope on the table with the McDougald Terrace apartment keys inside. Open it, she told Robert.

“He looked and said, ‘Keys! Mommy, you got your own apartment!’ He cried and cried,” Harvey said.  

McDougald Terrace quickly became home. But Harvey and Robert, now a sixth grader at Lowe’s Grove Middle School, left Jan. 3, when the housing authority started evacuating 270 families after carbon monoxide and other hazards were detected in apartments.  

Losing home

Shimey Harvey and her son, Robert, in their one-room lodging at Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road. Photo by Cameron Beach

Harvey, Robert, and other affected families didn’t simply lose their mailing address. They lost child care, social communities, stability, and, in Harvey’s case, her job.  

Harvey and her son are only two of nearly 900 displaced McDougald Terrace residents, mostly women and their children, living in 16 hotels across Durham.  

After multiple residents were treated for carbon monoxide exposure, the housing authority evacuated nearly 75% of McDougald Terrace’s 360 apartments, including Harvey’s. Residents who were not required to leave were allowed to if they wished.

Evacuations were originally planned for a week. Instead, they’ve dragged on for more than a month. After weeks of inspections, DHA found that 211 gas stoves, 38 furnaces and 35 hot water heaters needed replacing or repairing due to inadequate venting of potentially lethal carbon monoxide. Contractors are also repairing electrical wiring, cleaning up mold, and tackling insect infestations in the 67-year-old public housing complex.  

After multiple extensions and an estimated $4.3 million worth of repairs, DHA officials have said they expect Harvey and other residents can begin moving back to McDougald Terrace this month.   

Harvey wants to get back home. Another week in the Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road means another week of no kitchen, no job and lots of family anxiety.  

Coping with evacuation

When using public transportation, Harvey takes two buses to travel between her temporary lodging and McDougald Terrace.

Each morning in the hotel, Harvey sets her alarm at 5 a.m. to wake Robert for school. He needs to get up early to eat the hotel’s continental breakfast at 6:30 a.m. or make it to Lowe’s Grove in time for school breakfast.   

Once Robert is where he needs to be, Harvey does laundry, stops at the grocery store, and runs other errands. Then, she takes an hour-long trip on two bus routes from the Quality Inn to McDougald Terrace to meet Robert’s school bus. Together, they make the hour-long journey back to their hotel.  

“When you don’t have a car, it’s a lot,” she said.  

Transportation isn’t the only challenge Harvey is dealing with. Before the evacuation, Harvey worked part-time in housekeeping at Rose Manor, a local nursing home. If she couldn’t make it back to McDougald Terrace in time to get Robert off the bus, that was okay. Friends and family there stepped in to help.  

Harvey checks on her apartment when she reaches McDougald Terrace. Photo by Corey Pilson

“My child care was my community,” Harvey explained. “Robert’s father lived across from me at McDougald. His godmother lived about four houses down.”  Now, with displaced residents spread out across 16 different hotels, Harvey has lost that community — and child care for Robert.

“I can’t bring him to work with me, and I have nobody to watch him,” she said. “So I had to let this job go.”  

Harvey resigned from Rose Manor on Jan. 23. Her boss told her he’d hold the job if she could return within a week, she said. “It takes a village, but I don’t have a village right now,” Harvey said. “I have no child care.”  

Harvey has worried for weeks that Robert’s health could suffer from this crisis. At McDougald Terrace, she started sleeping with the windows open to reduce the risk he breathed in carbon monoxide. At the Quality Inn room where Harvey and Robert live, packed with snacks and shoes and bags of clothing, Robert has little room to move.  

“Our children can’t run and play like before,” Harvey said.  

DHA has been providing daily stipends to displaced McDougald Terrace residents. Those living in hotels with kitchens receive $30 per adult and $15 per child each day, while those without kitchens, including Harvey and her son, receive twice that amount. Harvey is grateful for the money she’s received from DHA.  

“The stipends they’ve been giving me have helped,” she said. Harvey has used hers to buy cooking supplies for her hotel room, like a microwave and a pressure cooker.  

Space is at a premium in the hotel room. Harvey uses what’s available, including a bedside table, to store her and her son’s belongings. Photo by Corey Pilson

From their room at the Quality Inn, Harvey and Robert can walk to fast food vendors like COOK OUT, McDonald’s, and Bojangles’. But Harvey wants to feed her son healthier meals.  

“I just started trying Zaxby’s, because they have salads,” she said. “I’m trying to be healthy for him, but it’s expensive. Money goes quick.”  

Eager for normal

Volunteers from across the city have come together to support displaced McDougald Terrace residents. They’ve started donation websites, served meals and coordinated transportation.  

Frances Castillo, one of those volunteers, helped start a GoFundMe page for residents. Some of the funds Castillo and the team have raised are used to cook and deliver hot meals to each of the 16 hotels. Harvey and Robert have enjoyed three of those meals so far.  

Volunteers also see firsthand the toll displacement has taken on residents.  

“One woman I heard from now has a commute over an hour each way to get to work because she’s no longer near a direct bus route,” Castillo said. “Imagine being moved with none of your belongings, across town, into one small room.”  

Harvey doesn’t have to imagine. Moving all her family’s necessities — clothes, snacks for Robert and school supplies — from a three-bedroom apartment into a one-room hotel reminds Harvey of all the times she’s spent without a place of her own.  

“It’s like I’m in the New York shelter system again,” she said during an interview in her hotel room.  

Robert, at home on a weekend morning, nodded his head. “All of us were cramped up in one room when we were there,” he said.  

Harvey is frustrated by what she sees as negligence from DHA. She wants people to be held accountable for dangerous conditions at McDougald Terrace, which has failed repeated inspections in recent years. But above all, she wants her life back.  

“I want to be able to go to church,” she said. “I want to be able to make my son happy. That’s it. Stability. That’s all I want.”

At top: Shimey Harvey departs her temporary home, Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road, on foot. Photo by Corey Pilson

Correction: This story was modified to correct a misspelling of Shimey Harvey’s first name.

‘It was like a bomb’

Freddy DiVallerino was trimming trees on the 100 block of North Duke Street when he heard the explosion.

“It was like a bomb,” he said. “I had my back turned, and when I looked around I saw glass and chunks of the building hitting the ground.”

One person was killed and at least 17 people, including a firefighter, were injured after a gas explosion rocked downtown Durham Wednesday morning. Residents blocks away felt the blast and wondered what happened. But for those nearby, there was no doubt that something enormous and lethal had just occurred.

DiVallerino owns Freddy’s Tree Services. His staff was working on the landscaping in front of the Ingram Collection, a private museum of Porsches, right before the explosion.

Video of the immediate aftermath of the Durham gas line explosion Wednesday, shot by Freddy DiVallerino. Graphic language included. Used by permission. (Click here if you have trouble viewing.)

He said he began to smell gas around 9:30 am and told a nearby employee to call 911 and the gas company. Members of the Durham Fire Department, dispatched at 9:38, arrived quickly and evacuated people from businesses on the block.

DiVallerino was standing in the parking lot outside the Ingram Collection at 111 North Duke St. when the blast struck at 10:07 am.

“I was screaming, cussing,” he said. “But I knew I had to look for people, because someone might still be in there.”

DiVallerino said he jumped through the window of Prescient, a construction company at 115 North Duke St., in the worst-hit building. “The walls were collapsed, the ceiling was collapsed,” he said. “I went to the second floor and yelled for any survivors, but I didn’t hear anything back. Then I knew I had to get out of there.”

A few minutes later, tall flames roared from the roof of the building, which quickly collapsed.

Casey McCollough, an inspector for the NC Department of Transportation, said he was waiting for co-workers in his truck a block from the blast.

“I heard the loudest explosion I’ve ever heard in my life,” McCollough said. “Then I see a man running down the sidewalk. His face was full of glass, his back and arms had glass in them, and his hair was completely burnt off,” he said.

“He was just walking past the sidewalk when the explosion happened,” said McCollough, who said he took out his first aid kit from his truck and waited for an ambulance to help the man.

Durham firefighters remained on the block where the explosion occurred all day Wednesday. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

The cause of the blast is under investigation. Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn Wednesday morning said it appeared that a construction worker damaged a gas line. “The gas leak was caused by a contractor drilling under the sidewalk. He hit a two-inch gas line,” Glenn said.

The collapsed building also included Kaffeinate, a coffee shop. The building housing the Ingram Collection was also severely damaged.

At midday, Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said that the Durham Fire Department will continue searching for any remaining victims. “Units are starting search and rescue operations,” Zoldos said. Tunneling and “delayering” the damaged buildings could take days.

City officials closed the blocks surrounding the site of Wednesday’s explosion to everybody but emergency responders. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Ethan Stansbury, a Duke University junior, said he was across the street in his West Village apartment when he felt the blast.

“I thought a truck had crashed into the side of our building,” he said. “The windows of our apartment blew inwards, so there’s glass all over. It knocked stuff off our walls, too.”

When Stansbury went outside, he saw chaos. “People were crying, and there was glass and debris in the streets three blocks away. There were broken windows everywhere, and water leaking from pipes in the parking deck two blocks over.”

This is not what city officials were expecting today, the 150th anniversary of Durham’s founding.

“It’s a sad day,” said Mayor Steve Schewel, who also emphasized how well front-line emergency workers responded to the disaster.

“It’s also a day that I feel a lot of gratitude and pride for the way the employees of the city and county have responded,” he said.

(Alex Johnson contributed to this article)

Photo at top from video shot by Freddy DeVallerino. Used by permission.

Durham police chief brings hope back to department, though change is taking time

When Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis stood before the City Council for the first time in May 2016, she introduced her plan to revamp a police department in turmoil.

Davis vowed to address the “alarming increase in violent crime” that rattled the city in 2015 and 2016, and she promised to immediately begin rebuilding strong relationships with community and business leaders.

Thirty months later, Davis has delivered on most of her promises, particularly on limiting violent crime. She has also appointed liaison officers and cooperated with Durham’s Misdemeanor Diversion Program, which helps decriminalize first-time minor drug offenses, but racial disparities in traffic stops and searches are still concerning for minority groups in Durham.

Making Durham safer

Davis took charge of a department on its heels when she began her job on June 6, 2016 after serving as a deputy chief in the Atlanta Police Department.

There were 37 homicides in Durham in 2015 under “won’t-be-missed Jose Lopez,” as longtime former News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders labeled the former chief. Lopez was forced to resign at the end of that year, but homicides kept increasing to 42 in 2016, the most since at least 1980.

That trend immediately stopped in Davis’ first full year as police chief, as homicides were cut in half to 21. Overall violent crime remained relatively flat in 2017, but it was down 17 percent through three quarters in 2018.

“I give her a huge amount of credit, and not only is violent crime down 17 percent, but crime with a gun is down 26 percent,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said. “We are in a very sweet spot right now. We are reducing violent crime at the same time as we’re increasing the trust within the community.”

Council member Charlie Reece noted that the drop in violent crime is particularly impressive in a city with a rising population like Durham. But the population growth could also work in Durham’s favor — many newcomers are wealthier than previous residents and are gentrifying downtown apartment complexes and condos.

Some of the violent crime seems to have moved to poorer surrounding areas, where crime rates have grown in the last two years, though Davis insisted her department deserves credit for catching and imprisoning repeat offenders.

“It didn’t just happen. We moved some staff around, more visible, paying really close attention to hot-spot areas and being laser-focused at individuals committing violent crime and catching up with them,” Davis said after her third-quarter crime report at a City Council meeting last month. “That’s what it really takes is for us to look at the few people that are committing the most violent crimes.”

More lenient, but far from perfect

Questions about racial profiling linger. A March 2016 report by the independent research firm RTI International found that the odds of a male driver stopped by police being black were 20 percent higher during the day — when officers can more easily determine drivers’ races — than at night in Durham between 2010 and 2015. The report did not find similar disproportionate treatment of black drivers in Raleigh, Greensboro or Fayetteville.

The RTI report confirmed what community leaders in Durham had long suspected, providing data to support concerns of racial profiling. A month after it went public, the Durham Police Department took its first major step in repairing its image by hiring its first-ever African-American woman chief.

“Anecdotally, the people with whom I’ve spoken, they feel that it’s easier to ride around now without getting hassled by the cops, because I think that’s pretty much what led Lopez to being ousted,” Saunders said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “At least I think people are optimistic now, which I don’t think they ever were under Lopez.”

Davis appears to have addressed the outcry over racial profiling on the roads by deemphasizing traffic stops altogether. Durham police conducted 44.2 percent fewer stops in 2017 than in 2015, representing a sharp drop from 20,780 to 11,587 in just two years.

“It’s just about shifting the culture for all of us to be involved in community engagement,” Davis said. “If it’s just introducing yourself, if it’s just giving a person an opportunity to speed one time and just get a warning, it works. It helps people to think twice the next time they’re lead-footed.”

Fewer stops doesn’t mean racial profiling has been solved, though. In 2017, 58 percent of drivers stopped were black, more than their 41 percent share of Durham’s population. Once drivers have been stopped, they are also far more likely to be searched if they are black — 79.9 percent of searches in 2017 were conducted on black drivers.

“I didn’t expect her to come in and work miracles in that regard. I think most people are willing to give her time because they realize it wasn’t just about one bad officer. Durham has some of the greatest police officers I’ve ever met, and they’ve also got some assholes too,” Saunders said. “Institutional change isn’t going to occur just because you change the leadership. She’s got to get her opinion and her thoughts to the rank-and-file officers.”

Schewel said Davis has appointed community liaison officers for veterans, Hispanic people, the LGBTQ community and low-income areas in Northeast Central Durham. Those officers have built better relationships with people who were previously wary of the police. He also commended her for doing away with random traffic checkpoints last year, which often got undocumented drivers tangled up in the immigration system.

Schewel praised Davis most for improving relationships with African-Americans in Durham with her changes in drug enforcement. He noted that drug arrests were cut in half last year from 1,200 to 600, with marijuana possession accounting for most of that reduction.

“Instead of arresting people, they’re referred to the misdemeanor diversion court where they’re given community service or treatment or whatever it is that they need,” Schewel said. “They don’t get a criminal record, which is really important, especially for a young person starting a career.”

(Top photo by Katie Nelson)

Violent crime in Durham stops declining in third quarter

Durham’s sharp drop in violent crime in the first half of the year slowed during the summer, but city officials said they’re still encouraged by the overall trend.

Violent crime in Durham fell 17 percent through the end of September compared with the same period last year, Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis told the City Council Monday night. But violent crimes rose 5 percent from July to September compared to the third quarter of 2017, making the overall number less impressive than the 28 percent violent crime decline Davis trumpeted in her second-quarter report.

She also noted that homicides rose to 24 in the first nine months of 2018, up from 16 last year. Ten of the 24 homicides in 2018 occurred during the third quarter. Rape, robbery and aggravated assault remain down from last year, but all those declines were narrower in Monday’s report than they were three months ago.

“We’re trying to take the department from good to great,” Davis said. “We’re not where we’d like to be with homicides, but there are a lot of elements that have to do with homicides. A lot of it has to do with gang-related activity.”

City officials still seemed satisfied with the overall numbers. Council member Charlie Reece noted the violent crime rate through September was still down 21 percent from the five-year average from 2013-17, even as Durham’s population has increased 12 percent during that span.

No council member commented on or questioned Davis about the uptick in crime since her last report, and she shrugged it off as a normal fluctuation after the meeting, preferring to emphasize the yearlong decline.

“Violent crime down by 17 percent in the first nine months of this year over last year is a big number,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “It’s hard to maintain, but let’s enjoy the fact that we are experiencing this success.”

Property crime fell 5 percent in the first three quarters, though that drop was also cut in half in the last three months due to a crime-heavy third quarter. Larcenies, which make up the majority of property crimes, dropped 7 percent through three quarters, burglaries fell 3 percent and vehicle theft rose 9 percent. Burglaries are at their lowest point through September in 10 years.

To combat the rise in vehicle thefts, the Durham Police Department launched a Park Smart Initiative in July, putting 150 signs at apartment complexes, parking decks and businesses in Durham reminding drivers of prevention tips. Davis said more than 40 percent of vehicle thefts occurred when keys were left in the car or the engine was left running.

“Every time you think about getting into a warm car, just keep in mind that the car may not be there when you go outside,” Davis warned as cold weather approaches.

The police department did improve its response times in the third quarter, though it is still short of its targets. Its average response time to calls was 6.03 minutes, a little more than its goal of 5.8 minutes. Police responded to 52.3 percent of calls within five minutes, less than their 57 percent target.

At Fire Station 1, Annie Hoxie starts her engine and follows a family tradition

When Annie Hoxie tried to start one of the Durham Fire Department’s old reserve trucks to drive her crew to Harris Teeter while Engine No. 1 needed repairs, the truck beeped angrily.

From the back seat, veteran firefighter Richard Chavis offered her a clue and urged her to troubleshoot. “Why won’t it go, Hoxie?” he asked like a parent quizzing a teen with a learner’s permit. “Hoxie, slow down. How do the air brakes work?”

Hoxie hesitated, which prompted a brief lesson from Chavis on compressed air and storage tanks. After she adjusted a dial in front of her, she got the the truck to roll out of Fire Station 1 in downtown Durham, bound for Harris Teeter to buy dinner for the rest of the shift.


Hoxie, 28, has been a firefighter for two and a half years and wants to move up: relief driver, driver, captain and then battalion chief.

That was the highest rank her father, Craig Hoxie, achieved before retiring from the Durham Fire Department. She doesn’t want to go any higher than he did — that would mean an office job, which is not her thing. But she’s found she enjoys the family business, so to speak.

Times have changed. There weren’t any women firefighters when her father started his career. And today, they make up less than 5 percent of Durham firefighters, and there are no women at the rank of battalion chief or above.

“People aren’t sure what to call me. They’re like, ‘firelady?’” Hoxie said. “’Firefighter’ is fine. I don’t even get offended by ‘fireman.’ Some women do, though.”

New Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos introduces himself to the A shift at Fire Station 1 during his first morning on the job.

She is the only woman on the A Shift at Fire Station 1, part of the team on the engine along with Chavis and Capt. David Triplett. A smaller squad truck at the station responds to emergency calls calls. The teams work together closely, cleaning the station every day and alternating which group buys and cooks dinner.

As she hopped out of the truck with Chavis and Triplett, she said some people assume she’s just their driver. That’s often a challenge being a woman: She has to prove herself among her male peers.

“Biology is against us,” Hoxie said, noting that men are generally more muscular. “But if they can just throw the ladder right up there, I can find a technique to get around that deficiency or whatever you want to call it.”

Hoxie settled on firefighting later than many who enter the academy right out of high school. She earned a bachelor’s degree at North Greenville University and a master’s degree in archaeology in England before deciding to return home and give her father’s profession a shot. The education wasn’t a waste — now she won’t have to go back to school to earn a higher rank, while others take years of online classes before they can become chiefs.

Chavis and Triplett don’t give Hoxie any special treatment behind the wheel. They play the role of good-humored mentors, feigning panic on every turn that she might hit the curb.

Hoxie blends well with the team, trading barbs throughout the ride. She has little choice but to assimilate to what she calls the “brotherhood,” spending five 24-hour shifts in each nine-day work cycle surrounded by men. But she still talks about the rewards of the job and the relief on fire victims’ faces when she arrives at an emergency differently than her more unemotional colleagues.

“I feel connected to people, especially on EMS scenes. I have that compassionate side,” Hoxie said. “I still have the girl in me.”

Last Tuesday morning, the team was starting the first shift of a new cycle after a regular six-day break, and Hoxie bemoaned the fake eyelashes she had to wear that tickled her eyes at a family wedding over the weekend. None of the men in the circle could relate.

(Photos by Katie Nelson)

GoTriangle hosts public meeting for light rail feedback

GoTriangle is inviting members of the community to comment on proposed changes to the plan for a  light rail system that it plans to begin constructing in 2020.

According to GoTriangle officials, the changes reflect a Federal Transit Administration review and public feedback suggesting frustration with certain aspects of the the light rail’s initial design.

The system will run through Durham and Orange Counties’ with the goal of connecting Durham and Chapel Hill and providing “about 24,000 trips a day to residents and commuters connecting to jobs, education and healthcare.” In August, the Durham County Board of Commissioners voted to fill a $57.6 million state funding gap for the project, a decision that brought about criticism from many who believe it to be a bad use of taxpayer dollars.

The preliminary design plans presented publicly by GoTriangle in April also earned pushback from the public. In July, a local urban design group named Durham Area Designers penned a letter to the company’s board “critiquing both station aesthetics and the transparency of the process.”

Now, GoTriangle has presented its plans and proposed changes in a detailed “online meeting” that allows users to add comments to any section. The site will be open for feedback until Nov. 30, and there will also be a public meeting held on Nov. 19 in which people can go inspect the designs in person and offer their critique. Two other public meetings took place earlier this month.

The new changes are “meant to keep project costs in line, provide better pedestrian and bike access, and get the most benefit from future station-area development.” Some of them would affect the entire system, such as the incorporation of smaller station platforms that serves two train cars rather than three.

Other adjustments address problem spots at specific stations caused by parking lots and rail segments, such as the switch to a single-track bridge across New Hope Creek.

Robert Zoldos’ journey from small-town mayor to Durham fire chief

Before he left Lovettsville, Va., incoming Durham Fire Chief Robert Zoldos had to reassure his townspeople that he wouldn’t abandon his most important duty.

“I promised to come back every year to emcee the wiener dogs,” Zoldos said.

The wiener dog races are the highlight of Lovettsville’s annual Oktoberfest, when dachshunds dash down a lane of grass while the town of 2,300 cheers them on. Zoldos stands between the crowd and the race track, dressed in a traditional Lederhosen costume and a German alpine hat. His strong voice booms through a microphone, imploring the crowd to root for Lucy, Red and other dogs as they waddle across the finish line.

This is just one municipal duty for a small-town mayor like Zoldos, a stocky, muscular firefighter who stepped down from his government post this summer after three terms and six years as the face of his hometown.

One of his final acts as mayor was to temporarily rename the town Capitalsville when the NHL’s Washington Capitals were in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vegas Golden Knights. His proudest accomplishment? Getting sidewalks built in downtown Lovettsville after “hemming and hawing over that for decades.” That’s harder than you think when the roads were built for horses in the 19th century.

The wiener dog races are the highlight of Lovettsville, Va.’s annual Oktoberfest.

When Zoldos announced on the town of Lovettsville’s Facebook page that he was moving to Durham, more than 60 commenters congratulated him and lamented his departure. All it takes is a call to the city clerk’s office, and it quickly becomes clear that everybody knows and loves Zoldos.

“He’s hard to describe, kind of larger than life. He’s a great leader,” Assistant Town Manager Harriet West said. “There’s nothing that can’t be done in his book.”

Zoldos already sounds wistful talking about Lovettsville. He’s lived in the Northern Virginia area all his life and only briefly left for college at Penn State 30 years ago. But at age 49, it is as if he is leaving home for the first time.

Tracking tragedies

Outside Lovettsville, the mayor is Deputy Chief Zoldos, a career firefighter who has been an eyewitness to death and destruction. In a quarter-century rising through the ranks of the renowned Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, he got a first-hand look at natural disasters and other mayhem around the globe.

Zoldos was a rescue squad officer at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and is the former commander of Virginia Task Force 1, the Fairfax search and rescue team that is one of the only two in the country certified for international deployment. In that role, Zoldos went on missions to Haiti, Japan, Kenya, Turkey, Taiwan and Iran.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed at least tens of thousands of people left the most lasting impression on him, and he still has to separate himself from the scene when he describes it, avoiding the first person.

“You’re holding someone’s hand who’s alive, and you end up not being able to rescue them. That was a new concept for our team,” Zoldos said. “You build up a little bit of understanding of I can’t save all 200 or 300,000 that probably perish in that, but I definitely can make a difference in 10, 20, 30 or 40. As long as you can compartmentalize it a little bit, you have the ability to keep your focus.”

Zoldos says he helped some of his rescuers find help and manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But if he has struggled personally, it hasn’t been apparent in his work in Lovettsville.

“I’ve never really seen anything at the local level that got him flustered or upset him, and my guess is even though I’ve never talked to him directly about it, is that he’s probably seen some of the worst things in humanity,” West said. “I can only surmise that that contributes to all the good things that he’s done here and his attitude and his energy.”

Born to serve?

Zoldos was born in 1969, the year his father, Robert Zoldos Sr., began his career as a firefighter with the Leesburg Volunteer Fire Company. His father eventually became the fire chief in Leesburg, about 15 miles south of Lovettsville and 40 miles northeast of Washington, and he also served on the town council for eight years. His day job was as an air traffic controller at Dulles International Airport.

Zoldos didn’t seriously consider following in those firefighting footsteps until he enrolled at Penn State and served as a student emergency medical technician. He got a bachelor’s degree in behavioral and social sciences, and then earned a master’s degree in public administration at George Mason University a few years into his career in Fairfax.  

Few things about Zoldos’ life have been carefully calculated. He respected his dad as a firefighter, so the fire department seemed like a good place to start, though he was far more educated with a college degree than most firefighters.

Zoldos was a popular three-term mayor in Lovettsville.

He found it exciting and “more fun than a real job…I really took to it and it’s been a dream job for the last 25 years.”

Meanwhile, he felt the pull to serve in Lovettsville. But here, too, there was no master plan.  When there was nobody running for an open town council seat, he decided to run. He didn’t expect his involvement in local government to go beyond that, but after 14 years on the council, the retiring mayor asked him to step up.

“While I don’t covet the title of mayor,” Zoldos said in a statement announcing his first run for mayor in 2012. “I feel the same need that many of you have expressed during the past 11 days, that we must keep politics out of our Lovettsville and keep the ‘love’ in it.”

He beat his opponent 222-204, and won his next two terms uncontested.

Midlife renewal

All his career, Zoldos had been comfortable in northern Virginia. But this year, now that he and his wife were empty nesters, he decided to apply to be fire chief in Durham.

It was time to look for a chance to lead a fire department of his own, and he and his wife remembered visiting Durham four or five years ago and being amazed at its lively downtown. Zoldos applied and was hired from a pool of six finalists, and he will start work on Nov. 13.

“In terms of his role as an assistant fire chief in Fairfax, certainly leading a number of very prominent search and rescue missions in Haiti and some of his other responsibilities, we just felt like he was the best candidate,” Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield said.

Although Durham’s fire department is less than a quarter of the size of Fairfax County’s, Zoldos sees similarities between the two, calling Durham an “all-hazard department” that emphasizes urban search and rescue as well. Durham firefighters don’t just do the obvious — put out fires — but also help people escape other dangers, like when they used boats to evacuate residents to dry land during Hurricane Florence in September.

That’s about where the similarities between his new and old worlds end. Zoldos is proud of the town square in Lovettsville, but admits it’s “nowhere near as fun” as downtown Durham, where he will live in the Old Bull apartment complex in the American Tobacco District.

“Durham just hit us,” Zoldos said. “I’m looking forward to coming to a department that is big enough to make a major difference, but small enough where we can make changes, where we can turn the ship pretty fast, unlike a place like Fairfax.”

Leaving a monolithic department also means leaving his small-town rural life behind. Zoldos said he’ll miss striking up conversations at the gas station and knowing every face he sees, but in the same breath, he becomes excited about going to baseball games and plays across the street from his apartment in Durham.

His words sound like an energized young adult moving to a city for the first time after college, not a middle-aged man uprooting himself from the only region he’s ever known. But for the first time, the push to a new challenge outweighed the comfortable pull of home.

Photos courtesy of the Town of Lovettsville.

App steers you away from Durham’s crime; but does it spark fear and magnify social divisions?

The Parlour in downtown Durham is a happy place where the line for ice cream often overflows out the door. Children enjoy their cones on the plaza outside and chase each other around the city’s landmark bull statue as their parents look on.

Those parents probably don’t know they’re about 16 times more likely to be robbed and eight times more likely to be murdered on that plaza than the national average. At least, that’s what it says in Crime and Place, a remarkable new iPhone app that tells you the risk of crime for your location.

Sorry for ruining dessert.

Crime and Place calculates the likelihood of murder, rape and assorted other crimes by distilling reams of data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. It simplifies that data into a score from 1 to 10 for every census block group in the United States. The app uses maps and a “Crime Compass” with shades of red, orange, yellow and green that tells users not only how safe they are, but  essentially how to escape high-crime areas.

That approach bothers some policy experts, including Robert Korstad, a Duke professor of public policy and history who has researched Durham extensively, and Martine Aurelien, policy fellow at the North Carolina Justice Center. They say the app has some useful features but fails to account for fluctuations in crime during different seasons and times of day. They’re also concerned that it can reinforce stereotypes about race and crime and that it fails to account for users’ race and gender, which influences how likely they are to be the victim of crimes.

Korstad called the app “both impressive and horrifying.”

Pointing you to safety

For just $15 plus $5 for a year’s worth of data, Crime and Place will tell you where the crime is.

As you drive through Durham (or any other city), the app’s compass changes colors, giving you an escape route to get away from the bad guys. Drive around Durham and you’ll see it go from green (“low”) to yellow (“average”) to light orange (“elevated”) to red (“high”). When areas of the compass start to turn yellow or green, you can follow them to escape to safety. (For more details, see A trip through Durham with the Crime Compass.)

The app’s user manual offers some advice for road trips: “Try to stop for gas, meals, etc. when the compass shows green. Avoid stopping when the compass shows red.”

The Crime Compass shows high levels around Durham Tech.

Most of Duke’s campus is in a yellow “average” zone, but walk to Ninth Street for brunch at Elmo’s and the crime level becomes “elevated.” That’s still a safer meal than in the heart of downtown at Pompieri Pizza or The Pit, where it’s “high.” Hope Valley Country Club is in a “low” region, but that isn’t true for all of Durham’s wealthy neighborhoods — crime is “elevated” at Croasdaile Country Club.

If you want the app to keep you safe without having to watch it constantly, you can set a threshold for notifications that shout, “Entering high crime area!” whenever the rating rises above your chosen number.

The people who created Crime and Place say its meticulous data modeling makes it better than other crime apps. It reflects long-term crime trends with separate models for all nine census regions in the country and for the seven types of personal and property crimes.

Indeed, the app does some impressive math. For each area, it calculates a separate number for murder, rape, robbery and assault to create an overall personal crime score. It also tallies a property crime score using burglary, larceny and auto theft. It shows those scores relative to the national average, which is 4.0.

Each additional point on the scale doubles the likelihood of crime relative to the 4.0 national average. So at the Durham Bulls’ ballpark and the Durham Performing Arts Center, the 8.1 robbery rating means you’re more than 16 times more likely to be robbed than the national average.

Crime and Place’s lead developer, Jolly Salehy, said the app is primarily intended to inform people visiting unfamiliar cities or looking to buy a home, but he acknowledged it could change how people view their own hometowns.

“A lot of us had similar stories of business trips where you’re sitting in a rental car or you’re in an unfamiliar city and you end up somewhere that is unsafe, and then you start to get that panicky feeling,” Salehy said. “Living in a place for a while, you get a feel for where is generally safe and where is generally unsafe, so it possibly has limited use in those cases, although we have had some people that end up being kind of surprised.”

Avoiding the red in Durham: An impossible challenge

In front of the Duke Chapel, the personal crime score is 4.9, just low enough to sneak into the average range, and most of the compass is yellow except for one orange slice in the southern tip of campus.

The maps on the app show how arbitrary the differences between those labels can be.

The border between “average” and “elevated” crime is roughly the 50-yard line at Wallace Wade Stadium. Visiting teams looking at the compass from their locker room would feel less safe in Durham than Duke’s players in the home locker room on the other side of the stadium.

The map on Crime and Place shows a line going through the field at Wallace Wade Stadium, which suggests that visiting teams are more at risk of crime than the Blue Devils.

Drive across Cameron Boulevard to the Duke Faculty Club or go for a run around the Al Buehler Trail and you’ll be in an “elevated” orange region throughout your workout. The Duke professors and physicians who drive a couple of miles down Academy Road to drop their children off at the Durham Academy middle school may be alarmed to see that their 10-year-olds are walking on the sidewalks to class in an “elevated” region, too.

The darkest shade of red in Durham is around Durham Tech Community College and the McDougald Terrace public housing complex southeast of downtown. The personal crime score is as high as 7.3, and murder and robbery ratings are 8.3. The Crime Compass calls it “high.”

That red region borders North Carolina Central University, a historically black public college, and roughly correlates with the old Hayti neighborhood when the city was segregated. Today, the area is home to much of Durham’s low-income housing.

“Looking at that app and understanding the history of Durham, I think it just helps just to corroborate an unfortunate narrative that has already been in place,” Aurelien said.

Other crime apps have been driven out of existence after being labeled as racist. SketchFactor, a crowdsourcing app in which the public could assign subjective ratings to points on a map and submit comments — The Washington Post reported that one comment criticized “homeless crackheads” — was rebuked upon its launch in 2014 and is no longer available.

Aurelien said Crime and Place is more reputable because it uses pure data, but she acknowledges it could provide more nuance to help overcome stereotypes if it presented the rate of change of crime.

Since predominantly black areas often overlap with low-income areas in Durham, wealthier white neighborhoods already have a head start with a lower initial crime rate. But if people can see that the crime rate in a poor community is decreasing, they might be more encouraged to shop, eat or even buy a house there.

The app’s emphasis on longer time periods makes it more resistant to outliers and randomness from quarter to quarter, but with such a large time range, users don’t know whether an area is red because of something that happened two months ago or two years ago.

“Although it might be red, if the app provided how this changed from five years ago, two or three years ago, sometimes people aren’t just interested in knowing and understanding whether crime is prevalent but also understanding if it’s growing, decreasing or remaining stagnant,” Aurelien said.

Salehy said the app’s creators talked about the influence of racial stereotypes before launching Crime and Place in 2016 and called it a “touchy subject,” but decided there was no harm in repackaging public information.

“That was one of the things we kind of struggled with early on — how is this going to be interpreted by the public? Will this be kind of taken the wrong way? Will this seek to reinforce stereotypes?” Salehy said. “At the end of the day, all we’re doing is facilitating visualization of some data. We can’t control how our customers choose to interpret that or the decisions that they make based on that.”

Criminals come out at night

Aurelien noted that the app doesn’t change based on the time of day, but crimes do. Many crimes are more likely to occur when it’s dark.

“There are some areas where there’s only a handful of petty crimes that occur during the day, but the mood completely changes at night,” Aurelien said.

The app’s ratings also do not shift by season even though some crimes are more common during the summer when more people are outside.

Korstad’s biggest qualm with the app is that it doesn’t have any way to evaluate how susceptible each user is to crimes.

He said it would be useful if he could punch in demographics such as, “White college professor with a PhD driving a big car that has plenty of speed and plenty of gas,” and the app would customize a prediction on his likelihood of being a crime victim.

Korstad said using objective data instead of anecdotes also does not make the app immune to claims of prejudice.

Although the first sentence of Crime and Place’s methodology page boasts that it presents “well established, long term trends in criminal activity in the United States,” Korstad said there is a difference between criminal activity and crime rates. Criminal activity is not always caught or enforced by police, who often monitor and arrest people in minority communities at a disproportionately high rate.

“If I was interested in criminal activity around drugs, I know that one of the major places for criminal activity involving drug possession, drug sales and drug use is the Duke University campus,” Korstad says. “Because the police aren’t enforcing the law and they aren’t arresting or trying to arrest Duke students, it skews these numbers.”

That raises another issue that makes the app’s data incomplete: Crime and Place doesn’t include data on drug crimes at all. The seven crime categories it tracks make up Part I of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, and drug offenses all fall under Part II, making the app’s claim that it “paints a more accurate picture of overall crime levels in a given area” only partially true.

(Photo at top by Katie Nelson)

A trip through Durham with the Crime Compass

The Crime and Place app’s “Crime Compass” tells you where the danger is and how to get away. The colors change as you drive through the city. Here’s how the compass looks at different locations in Durham. (For more details about how Durham is portrayed in Crime and Place, see our full report.)

Emily K Center: At the Emily K Center on W. Chapel Hill Street at the edge of downtown, the crime level is “high.” The only safer region within a half mile is a light orange “elevated” slice toward Duke’s campus.

Emily K Center: At the Emily K Center on W. Chapel Hill Street at the edge of downtown, the crime level is “high.” The only safer region within a half mile is a yellow “average” slice toward Duke’s campus.

Elmo’s: Crime is “elevated” at Elmo’s Diner, a popular breakfast joint on Ninth Street. There are “average” regions to the north and south, marking Duke’s East Campus and the Hillandale Golf Course, and a “high” region toward Northgate Mall in the northeast.

By the bull: At the bull statue next to The Parlour downtown, crime is “high” with no easy escape route in sight.

Academy Road: Durham Academy’s middle school is in an “elevated” crime area on Academy Road, but if you hop on 15/501 on the way home from school, you’ll be in the clear in an “average” zone.

Near 15/501: University Tower, better known to Durhamites as the Pickle Building, sits in an “average” region, but the grass is finally green in a “low” zone to the north and west on Pickett Road.

Durham Tech: The crime level is highest near Durham Technical Community College and the McDougald Terrace public housing complex, southeast of downtown.