On the morning of July 11th Sun Prairie was in shock, its downtown forever altered, historic buildings reduced to rubble. Thousands of residents experienced the horror of forced evacuation, homes and pets simply left unattended.
Main and Bristol streets no longer carried thru traffic. The fear of another gas leak weighed heavily on many minds. The fire would rekindle a half dozen times during the next week.
Sun Prairie Fire was physically beat. Its members had performed 500 hours of service to the city during the 12-hour period after the report of the gas leak, 95% of it unpaid volunteer time.
Its firefighting apparatus was shot. Engine 3 had sustained damage severe enough to take it out of service until repairs could be made three months later. The rest were a mess in need of cleaning and restocking.
SPFD was also emotionally exhausted, having lost one of its own the day before — more than a fellow member, a part of that close knit family Fire Departments tend to be.
Capt. Corry Barr was the first fatality since Sun Prairie Fire began operations in 1891. Another firefighter was severely injured, a very rare event. And the volunteers had jobs to go to. Yet Sun Prairie Fire had 43,000 residents in a 94-square mile territory depending on it for protection and Fire Departments just can’t call in sick or take a vacation.
But, for the first time in 128 years The Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department went out of service. Its territory was covered by 17 area departments that sent engines and personnel to Sun Prairie and staffed both stations until 6 a.m. on July 16th so its members could grieve and recover.
That evening, at its next scheduled training drill, a dozen former members showed up to help get the station back in service.
The 15 other departments that responded when called were also recovering. Half of the 38 responding units were released after 4 a.m. Ten of the units were on scene for eight or more hours. Most of the personnel from these departments are also volunteers who responded after a full day’s work at normal jobs. Task Forces from Sauk, Jefferson and Rock Counties — also mainly volunteers — brought another 33 units from 22 departments.
Dane County Emergency Management’s Emergency Operations Center was partially activated and staffed by 8:30 p.m., to assist with resource coordination. Given the high probability of mass casualties, staff worked closely with area clinics and hospitals to assure they were prepared for a surge. Bed capabilities from the hospitals in Region 5 (14 counties) were also identified. Fitch-Rona EMS sent an ambulance to DeForest to cover that district and Lodi sent an ambulance to Waunakee.
The Southwest Wisconsin Incident Management Team was requested and sent an Incident Command Team to provide Incident Command from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the 11th and maintained a presence providing support until 6 p.m. on July 12th.
During the event natural gas service was shut off for more than 500 customers and restoration of that service was a time consuming process. Forty technicians from WE Energies started that process on the morning of the 11th with most service restored that evening.
The Red Cross provided staffing at Sun Prairie High School, designated as the main shelter. Almost 60 volunteers and staff provided help for over 100 displaced persons that first night with 2,000 meals and snacks, cots and emotional support. Medications and eyeglasses were replaced and alternate long term housing was located for 38 individuals and families. The assistance continued for five days. The Salvation Army provided staff at Patrick Marsh with a team of seven volunteers and staff who served over 13,000 drinks, meals and snacks and assisted another 18 families in locating lodging.
The City Engineer and Building Inspector were on scene that night along with the entire staff of Public Works, five members of the Engineering and Inspection staffs and four Wastewater Treatment workers.
As the scene became safe to work in, the storm and sanitary sewers were visually inspected and 1000 feet of the sanitary system x-rayed with no damage located.
The inspection crew conducted a rapid exterior damage assessment of 84 buildings closest to the blast in the next 24 hours. Many would require an independent inspection by structural engineers before they could be occupied again.
SP Utilities workers were heavily involved in the event as well with four line workers and two water operators. Electrical service was cut to the area from Linnerud Drive to Windsor Street and North Street to Market Street. This area included the well on Cliff Street -- one of the two that provide water south of Main St. In order to ensure adequate water for the fire ground operations, a valve in the 1200 block of West Main had to be opened. However the tools needed to do so were at the SPU shop which was in the evacuation zone and inaccessible. Fortunately, a local contractor assisted.
There would be a heavy law enforcement presence in the area for 9 days. The area was a crime scene and secured until the investigation was completed.
Another concern was the structural integrity of buildings in the 100 block of E. Main Street. Access was limited until building inspectors assessed each location and everyone given access was escorted by a firefighter or police officer. On July 19, the scene was turned over to private contract security that continued to restrict access while rubble was cleaned and the area made safe.
The final phase, reconstruction of the streets and sidewalks, was completed. On Nov. 14th, after remarks from the mayor and an emotional “thank you for all of your support” from the Fire Chief, a ribbon cutting ceremony marked the new normal for the downtown. The streets were open for traffic two days later and for the first time in 127 days, Downtown Sun Prairie carried thru traffic.
The Sun Prairie Police Department invested 600 hours of time into the investigation joining the Fire Department, State Fire Marshal’s Office and District Attorney to determine the causes of the explosion. At 3:16 p.m. on Nov. 8, Sun Prairie Police incident 18-43662 was closed — almost four months after the initial call — and the findings of that investigation were released on Dec. 20th.
The tragedy of July 10/11 resulted in an unexpected gain for Sun Prairie Fire. The only member of the department to leave was Assistant Chief Arnie Kleven who, at age 75, retired in mid-February after 46 years of service. Three former members found their passion re-ignite and returned and 10 members of the community simply walked in the door and asked to serve.
And Sun Prairie saw the birth of a new slogan, Sun Prairie Strong. During the fire the parking lot at Patrick Marsh Middle School filled with food, water and other items donated by local businesses. The SPHS Football Team organized itself and simply showed up at SPHS to help at the evacuation center. In the weeks that followed, downtown businesses cleaned up and reopened.
Before I go I’d like to add a few personal thoughts.
For volunteers, the calling is strong. They surrender their life to a call at any time. And when the call occurs, they walk away from family, birthdays, graduations, holidays and paid hours at their jobs.
When a neighbor’s house is burning up, a farmer’s barn is burning down, there’s a serious crash on a highway or a department on the other side of the county needs help, they cannot find it within themselves to say it’s not my problem, they roll up their sleeves and pitch in.
Volunteer firefighters dedicate vast amounts of time and effort attaining and maintaining skills. And they do it for no pay. They do it for love of community, neighbor and department. And we all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
During my research I had occasion to correspond with many fire chiefs and one common comment was amazement at the low number of casualties — units arriving on scene after the explosion had expected casualties in the 100s.
And they all credited the initial actions by the Incident Commander, Assistant Chief Kleven and the Police/Fire personnel who orchestrated a swift and orderly evacuation of the area before the explosion with that success.
Pete Vickerman is a retired Sun Prairie Police Officer. He was also a charter member of Sun Prairie EMS and a 5 year member of the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department.