DOT: Streets around explosion site in Sun Prairie could be closed up to 6 months

July 21, 2018

Rocked by a natural gas explosion last week, the 100 blocks of East and West Main Street in downtown Sun Prairie could remain closed for up to six months if there is extensive damage to utility lines underneath the street, a state Department of Transportation official said Thursday, but a more definitive estimate won’t be available until the criminal investigation into the blast is complete.

The two blocks around the intersection with Bristol Street remained fenced off as the state fire marshal and Sun Prairie Police Department work to determine what happened and why on July 10 that led to the explosion that killed Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr, critically injured firefighter Ryan Welch, destroyed five buildings and displaced about two dozen families.

“They’ve been collecting evidence, they’ve been conducting interviews and trying to determine exactly what happened that led to this situation,” city administrator Aaron Oppenheimer said. “That cleanup part won’t happen until that criminal investigation ends and the insurance companies as well get into their independent investigations.”

WE Energies said last week that workers for a contractor punctured a 4-inch natural gas main, sending gas leaking into a building ahead of the explosion. Verizon Wireless on Friday said Bear Communications was one of its contractors on the utility work on North Bristol Street to build a fiber network. Bear said its subcontractor, VC Tech Inc. — which is not registered as a corporation or licensed in the state, according to online state records — was on the scene prior to the blast.

Oppenheimer and Mayor Paul Esser would not comment on the investigation, but police have said criminal charges have not been ruled out.

DOT officials said they could not provide a timeline for the reconstruction of the streets and intersection because the continuing investigation has kept them from surveying the damage.

Highway 19 includes the portion of Bristol Street north of Main Street as well as Main Street east of that intersection, which puts the burden of reconstruction on the state rather than the city.

Surface repaving wouldn’t take long, said Joe Nestler, who oversees the state highway system, but if there is damage to utility lines that run underneath the street, that would add significantly more time.

Oppenheimer said the investigators hope to be done and out of the scene Friday.

DOT Secretary Dave Ross promised those at a public meeting Thursday that the reconstruction would be done as quickly as feasible. Nestler said he expects it won’t take any longer than six months even if there is extensive damage.

Some residents at the meeting voiced concerns about traffic at the intersection and possible fixes to those problems, but Ross said the reconstruction would likely follow the existing footprint of the streets.

The Dane County 911 Center received about 30 calls relating to the explosion July 10, according to audio recordings released to the State Journal. At 6:19 p.m., one of the contractors, whose name had been redacted from the audio record, called to report the gas main had been broken.

“We’re doing construction work and we hit a gas main,” the man said.

Some of the callers were in their apartments near the explosion as it happened and called to ask for help and direction after the blast had knocked over personal belongings, blown out windows and opened doors.

“I got windows blown out and doors blown open,” one caller said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Shannon Jambard, who owns jewelry supply store Meant To Bead with her husband Bill, said she was closing up the shop at 110 Columbus St. during the explosion. Jambard said she and her husband had just been allowed back into their store on Thursday but were still not able to open up shop as none of the utilities had been turned back on.

Jambard said she is hopeful that the store will be up and running soon and that customers will come back once they reopen. Even with that hope, she said she’s still anxious.

“Already waiting a week and a half to get into that fenced-in area has been tough when you see other stores open and you’re just waiting,” she said. “I’m not a good waiter.”

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