By TODD RICHMOND
SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. (AP) — A firefighter was killed, at least a dozen other people were injured and at least two buildings were leveled when a contractor ruptured a natural-gas line in Sun Prairie on Tuesday evening.
Amy Jahns, a WE Energies spokeswoman, said the explosion occurred when workers for a private contractor punctured a 4-inch gas main. The blast caused burning debris to rain down on downtown Sun Prairie, set vehicles parked nearby on fire and sent up a cloud of smoke that could be seen for miles.
Cathy Schulze, another WE Energies spokeswoman, declined to identify the contractor responsible for the explosion. She did note that the contractor wasn’t working for WE Energies.
“They were not doing work on our behalf,” Schulze said.
Schulze said WE Energies dispatched crews to the scene after learning of the gas leak at about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. The explosion occurred shortly afterward. It took about two hours before workers were able to get close enough to the scene of the blast to shut off gas lines to the area, Schulze said.
“It was a very complex situation,” she said. “Crews could not access the area safely to stop the leak.”
Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, identified the firefighter who was killed as Cory Barr. Barr, who had been with the department for at least 10 years, also owned the Barr House tavern, one of at least five buildings destroyed in the explosion.
Another firefighter suffered critical injuries in the blast but has since been listed as being in a stable condition, according to Sun Prairie Police Lt. Kevin Konopacki. Four other firefighters, a police officer and seven civilians were also hurt, Konopacki said.
“The Sun Prairie Fire Department is strong. We will keep on building from this. We are hurt, but we will come back,” Sun Prairie Fire Chief Christopher Garrison said.
Schulze said WE Energies was still working Wednesday afternoon to restore gas service to the 500 customers who were affected by the explosion. Authorities evacuated buildings within a half-mile radius of the center of the explosion. The Barr House and Glass Nickel Pizza were blown up after the gas ignited, police said.
Steve Owen, 60, who owns Sun City Cyclery and Skates in downtown Sun Prairie, said he saw firefighters and police officers on the street just before the explosion. He said the building across from his shop “literally lifted up.”
He said the force 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 occurred.
“It shook the whole building,” Thompson said. “I thought someone had hit the building with their vehicle.”
The Daily Reporter staff writer Nate Beck and Associated Press reporters Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee and Carrie Antlfinger in Sun Prairie, and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York, contributed to this report.