Natural gas explosions rock Madison, Wisconsin suburb, level buildings; firefighter dies

Ole Allen
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A series of explosions rocked a Wisconsin community after a contractor struck a natural gas main in a downtown area filled with bars and other businesses, authorities said. CBS Madison, Wisconsin affiliate WISC-TV reports some buildings were leveled, and one of two firefighters injured at the scene later died. A police officer was also injured.

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

No one was reported missing, but Konopacki said buildings would be searched in the Madison suburb of about 30,000 once the flames were out. Firefighters were still battling flames more than three hours after the explosion.

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The first powerful explosion occurred at around 7:15 p.m. and sent a plume of smoke and flames into the air.

Konopacki said the firefighters were taken to a hospital, while the officer was treated at the scene. He said some civilians suffered minor injuries, but none required hospitalization. He didn't know the exact number of civilians hurt.

WISC says more blasts followed.

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. Authorities evacuated a half-mile radius and set up a shelter at Sun Prairie High School.

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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