The blast in downtown Sun Prairie on Tuesday evening also injured at least 11 other 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. that a construction crew 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 that burned long into the night and belched a smoke plume visible for miles.
"It looked like flames shooting out of heaven and just debris going everywhere," said Sun Prairie resident Benjamin Berry.
At least five buildings were damaged, including the Barr House tavern, Glass Nickel Pizza and a steak restaurant, according to a news release on the city's website.
Sun Prairie Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr, 34, was caught in the explosion as he was working to evacuate people from the area, Fire Chief Chris Garrison said during a news conference Wednesday evening. Barr died after he was transported to a local hospital, the Dane County Medical Examiner's Office said in a news release.
Barr had been with the department for 15 years. He also worked as a real estate agent and owned the Barr House. Garrison said Barr and his fellow firefighters and police evacuated 115 people before the blast. The chief choked up as he spoke and had to take a long pause to gather himself.
"We didn't lose a firefighter yesterday," he said. "We lost a family member."
Barr's wife, Abby Barr, said in a statement that Cory Barr was "the best husband a girl could ask for" and lived his life by the motto "happy wife, happy life." The couple was raising twin daughters who just turned 3 years old. She said the girls would run up to him screaming "Daddy's home!" whenever he walked through the door.
"He was so outgoing, goofy, big-hearted, and would give the shirt off his back to anyone," she said. "To say that our family is devastated and heart-broken is an understatement."
Gov. Scott Walker toured the blast area Wednesday evening, telling reporters at the news conference that the entire state was behind Abby Barr and her children.
"On behalf of the whole state, we say we love you," the governor said.
Authorities said five other firefighters, a police officer and five civilians were hurt and transported to a hospital. The firefighters included two who were caught in the blast with Barr.
All had been released by Wednesday evening except for one firefighter, who was upgraded from critical to stable condition, Sun Prairie Emergency Medical Services Chief Brian Goff said.
Authorities and WE Energies did not release the name of the company that was doing the construction work. Police Lt. Kevin Konopacki said during the news conference that investigators are in the midst of a complex probe and no information would be released.
Steve DePula, owner of Salvatore's Tomato Pies restaurant about a half-block from the fire, said he and Barr both served on a downtown business committee. He described Barr as a champion of downtown issues who worked to both preserve Sun Prairie and transform the city into a travel destination.
"He was very, very proud of Sun Prairie and the community he lived in," DePula said. "It's a testament that he served as a firefighter to how much he cared about the community."
Sun Prairie, a city of about 30,000 people, is less than 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the state Capitol in Madison. Its biggest claims to fame are Jimmy the Groundhog, a renowned rodent that predicts how long winter will last on Groundhog Day, and midget car races. The cars are a cross between ATVs and dune buggies.
Associated Press reporters Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee and Carrie Antlfinger in Sun Prairie, and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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