Madison, WI – By Steven Elbrow – A deadly explosion today blew apart a house on Madison’s east side, shattered windows as far as two blocks away and rocked people out of bed for miles.
One person was confirmed dead at the blast site, a home at 161 Division St., just north of Atwood Avenue. The home was reduced to a two-story mass of smoldering rubble shortly before 4 a.m.
Besides the fatality, no other injuries had been reported as of this morning.
“It’s nuts,” said Fire Department spokeswoman Bernadette Galvez as she surveyed twisted aluminum siding and insulation hanging from the large, leafless trees surrounding the property.
At a home directly across the street from the blast, window frames hung in disarray, while windows at homes within a block-and-a-half radius were shattered.
A brown brick, two-story home next to the wreckage stood smoldering, its roof blown completely off by the force of the explosion.
The cause was still being investigated, but authorities clearly suspected a gas leak.
“Some of the 911 callers said there was a smell of natural gas,” Galvez said.
Don Gilbertson, who owns a three-unit building next door to the one that exploded, said one of his tenants smelled gas at 3 a.m., but went back to sleep on a couch after finding nothing wrong with their building’s furnace.
Forty-five minutes later, the walls of their building blew apart.
“She said books, plaster, everything on the walls was coming at her,” he said.
Coroner’s officials this morning were still attempting to notify the victim’s relatives, who was not located until hours after the explosion because fire crews could not get into the burning debris. They would not release the victim’s name.
City of Madison online records list the owner as Michael G. Kreul. The 1,696-square-foot, two-flat house, built in 1940, was assessed this year at $187,300.
Gilbertson said Kreul worked at night and typically arrived home around the time of day when the blast occurred.
Some neighbors speculated this morning that a gas leak could have been caused by construction on the block; many homes are having their lead water pipes replaced.
A similar scenario led to the explosion of a home near St. Marys Hospital in February 2000, when workers from Ampe Excavating Inc. mistakenly drilled through a natural gas pipeline while digging through soil for a new water line at 1110 Erin St.
The resulting explosion totaled a 100-year-old home, destroying virtually everything owned by the four residents. No one was home at the time of the explosion, but officials say the explosion would likely have killed people had they been at home.
Crews from Madison Gas & Electric were out in force in the wake of the blast this morning, checking gas lines at other homes in the area that had been evacuated.
MGE spokesman Steve Kraus said about 20 homes that were hooked up to the same gas line have been checked out, and crews are awaiting clearance from authorities to turn the gas back on.
Galvez said at 10:30 a.m. that 25 homes were still off limits today.
According to witnesses, the breathtaking blast was followed by a rumble. People quickly ventured outdoors and saw debris floating in the air from the dark wreckage, and several minutes later a blaze emerged, quickly building into an inferno.
“It was a really powerful blast,” said Beth Binhammer, who lives about a block away on Linden Avenue. “You could feel it in your chest.”
Binhammer said she stepped on her porch to investigate after hearing the explosion.
“We saw a huge, huge orange sky with little bits of fiery debris flying up,” she said.
Binhammer immediately went inside to call 911, but she said the operator told her, ” ‘We don’t know what’s going on,’ which was very disturbing.”
James Smith, who lives more than a block away at 213 Division St., said he, his wife and mother, and his two grandsons were awakened by the deafening boom, the force of which caused pictures to fall from the walls, toppling a trophy case onto the head of his 10-year-old grandson, Phillip Smith.
“Fortunately, the little guy didn’t get hurt,” he said. “All the trophies and stuff landed on him.”
Smith considered himself lucky. Windows at homes on either side of his house were cracked or shattered, but his remained intact.
But Smith’s home didn’t escape unscathed. Falling debris damaged his roof, and the inside walls were riddled with cracks.
The 10-year-old’s father, Phillip Smith, said he heard the blast from Maywood Street, about 1 miles north, near the Oscar Mayer plant.