Firefighter killed in gas explosion, fire near Madison

Firefighters work the scene of an explosion Tuesday in downtown Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The explosion rocked the downtown area of Sun Prairie, a suburb of Madison, after a contractor struck a natural gas main.
Amber Arnold ~ Associated Press

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. -- 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. 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 burning long into the night and belching 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.