SUN PRAIRIE — Residents were recovering and workers were cleaning up Wednesday after a gas leak led to a massive explosion that killed a firefighter and destroyed or damaged several buildings in downtown Sun Prairie on Tuesday night.
Killed in the blast was Cory Barr, who was responding to the gas leak in his role as a captain in the Sun Prairie Fire Department but who also owned, along with his wife, Abby, one of the buildings that was destroyed: the Barr House restaurant and bar at 100 W. Main St.
Patrick DePula of Salvatore's Tomato Pies, another downtown business, called Barr "a champion of our community."
"He and his wife bought the Barr House with the intent to build community around it," he said.
Another firefighter was hospitalized in critical condition, and a third firefighter was admitted to a hospital after the explosion at around 7:15 p.m., or about 40 minutes after a contractor breached a gas main. A police officer, three firefighters, and seven civilians also were injured.
Sun Prairie Police Lt. Kevin Konopacki said an evacuation of the downtown began after the gas leak was reported, and the time between the gas leak and the explosion likely prevented more injuries.
Ruins of buildings Downtown were being searched Wednesday to see if any other victims are in the rubble, but Konopacki said officials have "no reports of any missing persons.
In addition to the Barr House, at least four other building were destroyed or suffered significant damage -- Glass Nickel Pizza, the Professional Building, Water Tower Chophouse and a residence. A full inventory of damaged or destroyed buildings has not been completed.
'People were scrambling'
Witnesses said the explosion shook the city of about 33,000 people and sent a plume of smoke and flames into the air.
Steve Owen, 60, who owns Sun City Cyclery and Skates in downtown Sun Prairie, said late Tuesday that he saw firefighters and police officers on the street and then the explosion “literally lifted up" the building across from his shop.
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,” Owen said.
Standing at the police barrier on Main Street just west of the blast area Wednesday morning, Jennifer McCartney, 35, said she was at her home on Jones Street getting ready to mow the lawn when the blast occurred.
"It was like a bomb in the backyard -- loud and it shook the whole house," she said.
Danielle Rowland, 30, who since 1996 has lived on Church Street, just a block from downtown, said she was on her back porch Tuesday night after dinner when the blast "rocked our house" and she saw the "biggest plume of black smoke and debris flying."
She went to retrieve her 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son from where they were playing down the street, grabbed their three dogs and two guinea pigs and fled.
"I actually jumped up in the middle of it shaking," she said, "because my kids were not there with me."
'Sudden and tragic event'
Like other nearby residents, Richard Berg, 83, was ordered by authorities to evacuate from an area within about a half-mile radius around the epicenter of the blast. Berg spent the night with a handful of other evacuees at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, 550 Lincoln Drive.
Matt Weber, the church's youth and family director, said the moments following the blast were confusing. He and many of his neighbors were told to evacuate, but they weren’t allowed to drive away from the area – starting the engines of their cars could cause more damage with the gas leak.
As Weber was walking from his home, just a few blocks from the church, he said he told others that he would open the church doors for anyone looking for shelter. A few people stopped in to use the space until they were able to find other places to stay.
“It was such a sudden and tragic event,” Weber said. “Our prayers go out to the Barr family, and the first responders and the community as a whole.”
The Salvation Army and American Red Cross provided evacuation centers at Sun Prairie High School and Patrick Marsh Middle School, and all summer school activities for Wednesday were canceled.
Red Cross spokesman Justin Kern said about 85 people were assisted or stayed the night at the organization’s post set up in the high school's gymnasium. Many of those people were from senior assisted living facilities, including about 50 from TallGrass at Sun Prairie Senior Living. All were able to return to their homes Wednesday morning.
Sun Prairie United Methodist church also opened its doors Tuesday night, with about 50 people and six dogs initially evacuating to the church. Fifteen people and three dogs spent the night.
“Our members and non members alike just came out of the woodwork to offer help and support, and for our staff as well," said church administrative secretary Laura Meixner.
Residents were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday morning, but a large area of downtown Sun Prairie remained off limits to most or all traffic and residents Wednesday afternoon.
Main was shut down between Church and Jones streets. Lane and Angell streets north and south of Main were closed, as were Bristol and South streets at Linnerud Drive and Columbus Street at Cliff Street.
Contractor punctured main
WE Energies spokeswoman Amy Jahns said workers for a contractor apparently punctured a 4-inch natural gas main, sending gas leaking into a building ahead of the explosion.
WE was called to the site just after 6:30, but there wasn't time before the explosion to shut down the gas at the source of the breech, according to another WE spokeswoman, Cathy Schulze. That meant workers had to find and shut off all the service lines and valves -- about a dozen in total -- that controlled gas going to the main, she said, and that took until about 9:30 p.m.
Schulze said the break in the main was not caused by anyone working for or on behalf of WE Energies. Sun Prairie Mayor Paul Esser said a contractor was doing "directional boring" under the street when it hit the gas main.
Neither WE nor Esser were able to identify the contractor as of Wednesday afternoon.
Schulze said that as of about 1 p.m. Wednesday, more than 275 customers of the 500 customers who lost gas service due to the explosion had their service restored.
Offering help, encouragement
Konopacki said many residents in the area came flocking to the scene Tuesday night to ask how they could help or offer words of encouragement.
“There’s a reason I love living in Sun Prairie,” Konopacki said. “It’s not people coming up and saying, ‘What’s going on?’ It’s people coming up and saying, ‘How can I help?’ ”
But Rowland, the Church Street resident, said she heard nothing about the gas leak before the explosion and the only contact she had from city or emergency officials was from the worker who came by her house after the explosion to tell her to leave.
"We have heard nothing from nobody," she said. "That's a little disconcerting to me."
Esser said the city does have a reverse 911 system to alert residents to emergencies and that it was activated at some point on Tuesday, but he didn't know when. He said first responders were busy just after the gas line was breached telling people in the Downtown area to leave.
DePula, of Salvatore's Tomato Pies, tried to put the tragedy in perspective Wednesday morning.
"Buildings are just buildings. Property is just property. Life is what matters. Life is what's irreplaceable," he said.
"It's just too bad somebody had to get hurt," said Berg, who's lived in his Jones Street home for 54 years. "You don't expect something like that in a small town."
A compilation of efforts to help offset the financial losses of those affected by the explosion has been set up at the GoFundMe page gofundme.com/cause/sun-prairie-explosion.
State Journal reporters Bill Novak, Shelley K. Mesch, Chris Aadland and Barry Adams contributed to this report.