EDEN, N.C. - An overwhelming stench of rotting chicken was on the wind Monday afternoon as rubble from the KFC explosion here roasted in 93-degree heat and neighboring business owners continued cataloging the blast’s damage to their structures.
PHOTO GALLERY: See images from the scene and cleanup of the explosion in a gallery at the end of this story
A week since the fast food restaurant blew up, local and federal investigators have yet to explain the official cause of the incident. And the Van Buren Road KFC’s Danville-based franchise owner has nothing to say about the massive eruption that happened two hours after a shift of five workers clocked out.
Thankful no injuries were reported, folks here are still talking about where they were when they heard the thunderous boom around 12:30 a.m. on July 11.
The force tossed one Eden man off his sofa, rocked a nearby mobile home like a Tilt-a-Whirl and roused hundreds from sleep, including the mayor, several miles away,
National news media ran with the story that rocked the city of about 16,000, while local social media trolls generated a storm of callous memes about the chicken franchise’s demise well before dawn Thursday.
An eyewitness to the explosion and a KFC employee who smelled the sulfuric odor of natural gas in the restaurant kitchen as early as 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday — just three hours before it blew — are convinced the explosion was caused by natural gas.
A walk around the periphery of the debris site Monday revealed a panel from a gas-powered appliance that had apparently been broadcast by the explosion some 50 yards onto an adjacent lawn. A manufacturer’s safety sticker with instructions about how to avoid hazards, including a gas explosion, was pasted to the panel’s surface.
Neighbors grapple with damage
Pharmacist Pete Crouch and his staff spent time restocking shelves at Eden Drug last week after the eruption knocked merchandise and signage to the showroom floor.
With 15 security cameras inside the drug store, Crouch was able to see just how the concussion rocked his store.
“We could see the insulation coming out of the soffett vents … around the eaves, and it affected the side and back of our building … knocked a sign off the side of the building,” said Crouch, whose wife Debbie dined for 40 minutes at the KFC Wednesday night, leaving about four hours before the violent effusion.
“It was crazy,’’ said Crouch, who was traveling in Missouri at the time. “She was there … and she claims she didn’t smell gas while she was there. It was scary.’’
As a longtime KFC neighbor, Crouch is counting on the famous chicken chain and fire and safety investigators to come up with clear answers about the cause of the life-threatening blast.
“Once they discover the cause, we certainly hope standards will be put in place to prevent things like this from happening in the future,’’ said Crouch, who last week shared 12 hours of security video with investigators.
“Something happened that shouldn’t have ...’’
Another close neighbor, Tee to Green Golf Shop, took a hit from the impact as well, said owner Jimmy Woodall, who dines at the KFC about three times monthly.
“Half of our roof is going to have to be replaced, and along the ceiling, there are several places to fix, plus three windows were damaged.’’
Likening the event to an earthquake, Woodall said siding along his building was damaged and, “In the attic, three pieces of the truss were damaged.’’
Despite the problems, Woodall has heard nothing from franchise leadership or KFC corporate officials. “No one has contacted me.’’
Woodall’s security cameras also picked up the blast, including footage of a 400-pound portion of the KFC’s drive-thru “rolling like a ball 120 feet across the parking’’ lot until it came to rest against a dumpster.
The explosion will likely mean stepped up safety training and standards for the restaurant and others like it, Woodall said.
“I think going forward, everyone will be more aware. You take an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old person who has never smelled gas, and they don’t really know what gas smells like,’’ he said. “From now on, thank goodness, there will likely be a lot more precautions in place. It will be high alert from now on you would think.’’
Mayor wakes with the shake
Eden Mayor Neville Hall said that when he was shaken awake at 12:34 a.m., he thought a tree had collapsed on his deck.
After a glance at the alarm clock, Hall dozed back off, thinking he’d wait until morning to deal with a fallen tree.
But within the hour, emails were popping up from City Manager Brad Corcoran, notifying him of the destruction on Van Buren Road.
“The blast awakened so many people that they came outside, especially close to the site,” Hall said. “They felt it, and they went outside and immediately went to social media.”
Indeed, RockinghamNow’s Thursday coverage reached nearly 34,000 people and garnered 1,350 shares on Facebook alone.
By Thursday afternoon and into Friday, the story had reached all major TV and cable networks, as well as national outlets, such as USA Today, People Magazine and Huffington Post.
Hall compared the incident to the devastation from a May 2017 EF-1 tornado that ripped through parts of Eden, damaging 39 structures, noting that neither major event caused injuries or deaths.
“I’ve said it over and over again, it’s just amazing that nobody was hurt,” said Hall, pointing out the potential for grave injuries or fatalities had the building exploded during business hours for KFC and surrounding businesses.
“That is a very dense and developed area where there is a lot of traffic all the time,” Hall said. “To have nobody be outside or right close enough to it to have an injury was a miracle.”
KFC offers employment, local franchise owner won’t comment
Hall said officials at Danville-based Bacon Enterprises Inc., who own the Eden KFC franchise, have offered to transfer Eden workers to other KFC locations in the region.
“From what I understand, just about 100 percent of them have taken them up on that offer,” Hall said Monday afternoon.
Reached by phone, Bacon Enterprises President Bill Shelton confirmed he is owner of the Eden KFC building, but declined to discuss the explosion and directed questions to KFC’s corporate public relations office.
Several hours after the blast, a KFC spokesman confirmed the local franchisee plans to rebuild after assisting with staff transfers and the explosion investigation.
As for city resources, Hall said the municipality will be responsible for inspections of the property and issuing permits for future construction should the franchise company rebuild.
“I don’t forsee the city being a holdup in any way as far as approving those permits and plans and things,” Hall said. “We will be glad to help them get open as soon as possible.’’
On Wednesday, Eden Police Chief Greg Light said the investigation into the cause of the explosion is a joint effort by Eden Police, Eden Fire Marshal Todd Harden and Greensboro agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
After leveling the building’s skeletal remains and re-opening Van Buren Road on Friday, officials continued to inspect remnants of the building, constructed in 1985, according to GIS records.
“I can’t go into a lot of details about what we collected from the scene, but some of the things that we did collect, we packaged those and sent those to different labs just to be analyzed,’’ Light said.
Asked if the items are being analyzed to determine the cause of the explosion, Light said, “That could be part of it.”
Moving forward, the Eden chief said the most time-consuming part of the inquiry will be the wait for lab results.
He added that authorities are still eager to speak with anybody who has information about the explosion.
On Wednesday, when asked by text message if foul play is ruled out, Light wrote:
“I would say the police department is still investigating the cause.’’
Anyone with further information or tips about the explosion should call the Eden Police Detective Division at 336-623-9240 or Rockingham County Crime Stoppers at 336-349-9683, the chief said.
“If someone ... saw something or heard something, we’d still like to talk to them,” Light said.