‘Not going to be the same:’ Historic buildings in downtown Sun Prairie damaged, destroyed by explosion

SUN PRAIRIE -- A massive natural gas explosion killed a firefighter and leveled portions of a city block in a southern Wisconsin community, including a bar the firefighter owned, authorities said Wednesday.

The blast in downtown Sun Prairie on Tuesday evening, July 10 also injured at least a dozen people and left residents of the Madison suburb wondering how they'll put their downtown back together.

"We could feel the blast. Like I said, it was just surreal," said Adam Bougie, who was inside the Glass Nickel Pizza restaurant next to the Barr House at the time.

The blast happened after police got a call at 6:30 p.m. that construction workers 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.

Capt. Cory Barr

Sun Prairie Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr was killed in the blast, said Mahlon Mitchell, president of the state firefighters union. Barr had been with the department for 15 years, his wife, Abby Barr, said in a statement. He also worked as a real estate agent and owned the Barr House, a tavern destroyed in the explosion.

Five other firefighters, a police officer and at least six civilians were hurt, according to Sun Prairie police Lt. Kevin Konopacki. One of the firefighters was critically injured and remained hospitalized Wednesday, Konopacki said. Authorities did not provide details on the civilians who were injured, including where they were in relation to the blast. Authorities and WE Energies also did not release the name of the company that was doing the construction work.

At least five buildings were damaged, including the Barr House, Glass Nickel Pizza and a steak restaurant, according to a news release on the city's website.

Adam Bougie

"It was surreal. Scary. We saw the firefighters standing there by the building. Then they weren't there anymore. It was really frightening," said Bougie.

The historic building from which Bougie operated his business for the past 14 years was reduced to rubble.

"It's hard on the community -- that this was historic downtown. It's not going to be the same," said Bougie.

The Barr House building that exploded was built in 1893, and known as the Crosse Building. It was a national historic landmark. It changed hands a few times until it became The Barr House in 2016, after the Barr family bought it.

Rick Peterson has been renovating some of the historic buildings on Main Street in Sun Prairie. He said buildings blocks away from the explosion were damaged.

"Some of them have been damaged -- broken windows and stuff. Major structural, maybe some foundation stuff. The building's nearest the explosion are probably going to have some fire damage," said Peterson.

Peterson almost completed the restoration of a building nearby. That renovated building was damaged by the explosion.

"It's just, some of these buildings are 99 years old, so they're going to be susceptible to something like this, probably a little more so than something a little newer," said Peterson.

"Buildings can be rebuilt. Stuff can be re-bought. The tragedy is that there is a life lost," said Bougie.