Firefighter killed in gas explosion, fire near Madison

A large plume of smoke from a massive fire is seen in Sun Prairie, Wis., Tuesday, July 10, 2018. Witnesses said the fire broke out after a loud boom Tuesday night shook the community. Police blocked off downtown streets from traffic and onlookers. (AP Photo/Todd Richmond)

By TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. (AP) — A massive natural gas explosion killed a firefighter and leveled portions of a city block in a southern Wisconsin community, including a bar the firefighter owned, authorities said Wednesday.
The blast in Sun Prairie on Tuesday evening also injured at least a dozen people and left residents of the Madison suburb wondering how they’ll put their downtown back together.
“It’s just hard to look the pictures (of the explosion and ruined downtown) and see what our city looks like now,” resident Erin Updike said.
The blast happened after police got a call at 6:30 p.m. that construction workers working on a downtown street had punctured a WE Energies natural gas line. Police and firefighters arrived to investigate and were evacuating the area when the gas exploded shortly after 7 p.m. The blast ignited four-story high flames that burned long into the night and belched a smoke plume visible for miles.
Sun Prairie Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr was killed in the blast, said Mahlon Mitchell, president of the state firefighters union. Barr had been with the department for at least 10 years. He also worked as a real estate agent and owned the Barr House, a tavern that was destroyed in the explosion.
“The Sun Prairie Fire Department is strong. We will keep on building from this. We are hurt, but we will come back,” Fire Chief Christopher Garrison said.
Five other firefighters, a police officer and at least six civilians were hurt, according to Sun Prairie police Lt. Kevin Konopacki. One of the firefighters was critically injured and remained hospitalized Wednesday, Konopacki said. Authorities did not provide details on the civilians who were injured, including where they were in relation to the blast.
At least five buildings were damaged, including the Barr House, Glass Nickel Pizza and a steak restaurant, according to a news release on the city’s website.
“It looked like flames shooting out of heaven and just debris going everywhere,” said Sun Prairie resident Benjamin Berry.
Authorities and WE Energies did not release the name of the company that was doing the construction work.
Sun Prairie, a city of about 30,000 people, is less than 15 miles (25 kilometers) from the state Capitol in Madison. Its biggest claims to fame are Jimmy the Groundhog, a renowned rodent that predicts how long winter will last on Groundhog Day, and dirt races involving midget cars, a sort of cross between ATVs and dune buggies.
Steve Owen, 60, who owns Sun City Cyclery and Skates in downtown Sun Prairie, said he saw firefighters and police officers on the street before the explosion happened. He said the building across from his shop “literally lifted up.”
He said the force of the blast knocked him back in his chair and that he ran outside and saw a ball of fire.
“People were scrambling,” said Owen, who lives above his shop.
Jill Thompson, 56, who lives about two blocks away, said she saw smoke immediately after the blast.
“It shook the whole building,” Thompson said. “I thought someone had hit the building with their vehicle.”
Steve DePula, owner of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies restaurant about a half-block from the fire, said he had known Barr for several years. He said they both served on a downtown business committee. He described Barr as a champion of downtown issues who worked to both preserve Sun Prairie and transform the city into a travel destination.
“He was very, very proud of Sun Prairie and the community he lived in,” DePula said. “It’s a testament that he served as a firefighter to how much he cared about the community.”
Updike said the Barr House was his favorite tavern and he frequented it on Tuesday nights to play trivia. He said he’d often see Barr drop in between working at the Fire Department and selling real estate.
“He always had time for everybody,” Updike said. “Always happy, smiling, positive, great attitude. He was pretty proud to be a firefighter.”
Associated Press reporters Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee and Carrie Antlfinger in Sun Prairie, and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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