Firefighter killed as natural gas blast rocks Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

 cbsnews.com  7/11/2018 11:53:18 AM  4  CBS/AP July

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. -- An explosion rocked a Wisconsin community after a contractor struck a natural gas main in a downtown area filled with bars and other businesses, killing one firefighter and injuring several others, police officers and civilians, authorities said.

First responders rushed to the scene of a reported gas leak, and an evacuation was already underway when the first blast happened Tuesday evening, said police Lt. Kevin Konopacki in Sun Prairie, a Madison, Wisconsin, suburb of about 30,000. He added that lives were likely saved by the evacuation, which was set in motion by people smelling the odor of natural gas.

Firefighters were still battling flames more than three hours after the explosion. The powerful blast, at around 7:15 p.m., sent a plume of smoke and flames into the air. By morning, the fire was pretty much out, contained to one or two buildings, and it appeared everyone had been accounted for. A search of the area didn't turn up any additional victims, officials said.

A half-mile evacuation area was still in place Wednesday morning, with more than 100 people out of their homes, reports CBS Madison affiliate WISC-TV.

“We are hurt, but we will come back.” -Sun Prairie Fire Chief, after one of their firefighters died overnight after responding to a gas explosion @WISCTV_News3 #news3 pic.twitter.com/yPZq1X7EGH

— Christina Lorey (@ChristinaLorey) July 11, 2018

After the gas main was initially turned off at 9:30 p.m., WE Energies crews worked overnight in the area. There is no timeline on when the 500 customers currently without natural gas would have it restored.

In addition to the firefighter who was killed, one police officer was taken to the hospital and released; seven civilians were taken to the hospital and released; and six firefighters were taken to the hospital, four with minor injuries and one who is in stable condition, says WISC.

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. All 12 gas lines in the area were shut off by about 9:30 p.m.

The blast, about half a block from City Hall, appeared to be centered on the Barr House, a pub. It suffered significant fire damage, as did a nearby restaurant and residence, WISC says. Police said there was a lot of glass at the scene. 

Evacuees gathered at Sun Prairie High School, and the local WMCA was offering assistance, as well.

Steve Owen, 60, who owns Sun City Cyclery and Skates in downtown Sun Prairie, said he saw firefighters and police officers on the street and then 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 from where the blast occurred, said, "It shook the whole building. I thought someone had hit the building with their vehicle. We seen the smoke immediately."

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