By Todd Richmond
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 downtown 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 at 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 15 years, his wife, Abby Barr, said in a statement. He also worked as a real estate agent and owned the Barr House, a tavern 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. Authorities and WE Energies also did not release the name of the company that was doing the construction work.
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.
Abby Barr said in her statement that Cory Barr was “the best husband a girl could ask for” and lived his life by the motto “happy wife, happy life.” The couple was raising twin daughters who just turned three years old. She said the girls would run up to him screaming “Daddy’s home!” whenever he walked through the door.
“He was so outgoing, goofy, big-hearted, and would give the shirt off his back to anyone,” she said. “To say that our family is devastated and heart-broken is an understatement.”
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.
Sun Prairie, a city of about 30,000 people, is less than 15 miles 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.
“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.”