How can I help?

That was people’s response moments after the July 10, 2018, natural gas explosion rocked downtown Sun Prairie, killing Sun Prairie Firefighter Cory Barr, leaving dozens homeless, and destroying businesses.

As Sun Prairie Firefighters, Police and EMS dealt with the disaster, ordinary citizens offered their support.

The American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at the Sun Prairie High School that night assisting more than 100 people who either lost their homes or couldn’t get back in their downtown apartments.

Community members also responded immediately coming down to the shelter to lend a hand. One woman and her daughters brought down toys for kids at the shelter to play. Other people asked what they could do to volunteer.

Donations of food and supplies also flooded into the shelter with Sun Prairie restaurants and businesses bringing food and water for shelter families, American Red Cross volunteers, and fire, police and EMS personnel on duty.

“There was a tremendous response from the community,” remembers Justin Kern, American Red Cross of Wisconsin Communications Officer. “When disasters happen people respond right away and get involved. The turnout in Sun Prairie was amazing. People wanted to make sure that their neighbors were okay.”

More than 100 Sun Prairie residents were helped those first days at the American Red Cross shelter.

When the shelter closed on Saturday, Kern said more than 38 people were left that needed housing, food, and other resources.

Sunshine Place and other organizations took over helping out displaced residents over the long-haul.

Soon after the explosion, the Bank of Sun Prairie established the Sun Prairie Disaster Relief Fund. Individuals, businesses and a TV telethon helped raise more than $614,266 that was distributed to displaced residents, first responders and business and property owners.

Looking back a year later, Mayor Paul Esser says those contributions were much appreciated.

“That was uplifting for the community,” he said of the effort a year ago. “It was so spontaneous—people doing car washes, selling cookies and T-shirts, without anyone asking them to do it. They just took it upon themselves as their way to help out.”

Sunshine Place helped distribute relief funds to help pay for first month’s rent, security deposits, basic necessities, and other household items as displaced residents transitioned in their “new normal”.

“Without that direct support from community members we would not have been able to help those families out when they needed it most,” said Joanna Cervantes, Sunshine Place executive director.

Sunshine Place posted a list of what homeless residents needed and by the next morning, there were pillows, blankets, and household items at their door.

“It was overwhelming to see that response,” Cervantes remembers. “It was more than we needed.”

The July 10 downtown explosion happened right around 7 p.m. with hundreds of residents eating, shopping and walking downtown. After a 911 call came in to report a natural gas pipe rupture, Sun Prairie Fire Department started to evacuate the area.

Capt. Cory Barr, a 15-year-veteran firefighter died in the blast as he was helping with the scene evacuation. Barr owned the Barr House, that was the center of the explosion.

City of Sun Prairie Mayor Paul Esser said the community mourned Cory Barr’s death, knowing how his efforts to evacuate the area saved lives.

“There was just an overwhelming sense of loss after Cory’s death,” Esser said. “He gave his life for this community and believed in being there for us— and all those fire, police and EMS— because of Cory and their efforts, 150 people got out of that area and were safe.”

Days after the explosion happened, make-shift memorial signs went up near the site honoring Cory Barr, and showing appreciation for fire, police and EMS staff that were on duty that night, and for their work, days after.

The community rallied behind Barr’s family by raising money to help Cory’s wife Abby and their three-year-old twin daughters. A GoFundMe page with over $205,320 in pledges. GoFundMe pages were also set up to pay for medical expenses for firefighter Ryan Welch, who was hurt in the blast.

Abby Barr wrote a thank you to the community in the Aug. 7, 2018 edition of The Sun Prairie Star.

“I hope and pray that the love and support in this community continues forever,” Abby Barr wrote. “I know that this is a legacy my husband leaves, and I plan to honor that for as long as I live.”

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