Madison, WI- By Samara Kalk Derby, The Capital Times
From the moment they spotted it five years ago, they just knew. It was, for them anyway, the perfect home.
It was a spacious, two-level brick home with a large attic built in 1932, and best of all, it was in the tight-knit Schenk-Atwood neighborhood behind the Barrymore Theater.
Jesse and Ryan Buske, who met as students at East High School and married in 1999, were finally able to purchase the home four months ago. They were taking their time picking out furniture and setting up the household where they expected to raise their two children and live for rest of their lives.
“Ryan and I have always been drawn to brick houses. But I think the main thing we were drawn to, both of us, was the neighborhood. I mean you walk around here and people smile, people say hello. There are kids galore in the neighborhood,” said Jesse.
Then, on April 13, their world was shattered when the home across the street at 161 Division St. exploded. The blast, caused by a natural gas leak, killed 51-year-old Michael Kreul, a UW-Madison custodian.
The explosion did an estimated $1 million in damage to the neighborhood, and the Buske family home, across on 2130 Bashford Avenue, was one of the hardest hit.
“We sort of had an idea about what the neighborhood was like, but especially since this disaster has happened. The underlying idea is whatever we can do to help, whatever we can do to make things right again,” said Jesse, who works for First American Title Insurance.
“A couple of neighbors have really gone out of their way. They’ve opened up their hearts and left their shoulders open for us to rest on, I guess. They’ve left their ears open to listen to us,” said Ryan, who works at Foremost Farms.
For the past month the family has been living in a rental home on Gorham Street, but their kids, 4-year-old Cash and 3-year-old Parker, remind them nearly every day about how anxious they are to get back home.
And they need constant reassurance that they will never have to leave again.
“The children are still young enough that they don’t understand the concept that something so bad could ever happen to them. They know what happened but they don’t realize how much worse it could have been,” Jesse said.
“Cash from the very start has said to us that the reason our house is as little damaged as it is is because it’s a brick house and ‘Mom, brick is very strong.’ It’s like the three little pigs.”
All the windows, including the full length windows on the sunporch, facing Division Street are boarded up. A sign on the front of the Buske home reads: “Limited entry. Special caution or repair required.” The family is able to visit the home but is not allowed to live there.
The second and third floors need to come down completely, said Jesse, choking back tears. The interior of the first floor will have to be gutted because of structural damage.
In the Buskes’ opinion, the initial estimate of $45,000 from the insurance adjuster at Farmers Insurance seems low. They expect to start construction June 1 and Schmidt’s Construction anticipates the rebuilding will take about three months. The Buskes also expect some haggling.
The remains of the Kreul home came down last week and the foundation was excavated. All that remains is a hole in the ground.
The brick house next door at 157 Division St. belonging to Kevin Grohskopf and Phil Biebl had to come down, too.
A third house, at 153 Division St., is condemned and scheduled to be razed.
In all, about two dozen homes were damaged, according to Catherine Stephens, who lives at 204 Division St. “But the spirit around rebuilding is astounding.”
Most neighbors credit Ald. Judy Olson for being on the scene right away, helping to bring people together. By the same token, Olson credits the people who live in the area.
“It’s a great positive story of people coming together and making the best of a very bad situation,” she said. “They think that the street should be renamed United Street instead of Division Street.”
In front of the lot where Kreul’s home once sat is a makeshift memorial containing a wreath, vases of artificial and dried flowers, figurines, a cross, a manger and ornaments. There is also a packet of fliers telling visitors how to donate money to a fund for neighbors in need.
Beth Galantha, who rents an apartment three doors down from the explosion site, lost some personal items – mainly dishes – and is grateful to have friends in the neighborhood who took her in immediately after the blast. She also marvels at the positive, can-do spirit in the neighborhood.
“Everybody gets along really well. I think there’s just a general sentiment, too, that people really like the neighborhood and we were anxious to get back and help out as much as we could,” she said, raising her voice over the hammering of workmen across the street.
“It definitely seems like the neighborhood is more of a tourist attraction post-explosion. A lot more foot and car traffic, I would say.”
At a recent neighborhood potluck many residents were saying that even after cleaning up they are still finding glass and plaster all over things again. “It seems like the houses are still settling,” Galantha said.
Sarah and Zach Agard live about six houses away from the blast site and continue to find new cracks in their home. Their three young sons have been having some trouble coming to grips with the blast, partly because they knew Michael Kreul.
Their oldest son, Darius, 6, is drawing pictures at school having to do with the blast, but the normally gregarious child is not wanting to talk to his teacher about what happened. The Agards have two other sons, Peyton, 5, and Quaid, 3.
“They worry about our house blowing up,” Zach Agard said.
The boys go to Hawthorne Park every day and have to pass by the remains of the Kreul home. The older two boys are having trouble going to sleep and have started wetting their beds.
Zach’s other concern is finding a company to do the repair work. The Agards, like the Buskes, are finding that a lot of construction companies are ill-equipped to work on older homes.
“I’m having a hard time getting contractors to come back. Just the initial ambulance chasers. Anybody we called on our own, they keep saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll come back,’ but I don’t think they really want to do it is what it comes down to,” said Zach, who is himself a carpenter for Bachmann Construction.
“I talked to two of them and they said they didn’t know how to put our house back together,” Sarah added.
The Agards’ south wall has pushed away from the rest of the house and there are gaps between the floor and the wall and the ceiling and the wall. Three doors, including the front door, are broken. Two windows are out and four others are cracked.
“There are cracks all over the place. We get more every day,” Zach said.
Sarah Agard said for the first two weeks after the explosion she had dreams about the blast and about Mike Kreul.
Her youngest son, Quaid, carried a canvas bag and would pick up every piece of glass.
“We kind of stopped because most of it is cleaned up, which is nice. But there’s still a lot here and there. I don’t know how he sees it but he’ll spot it anywhere. He’s really affected by that,” said Sarah, who used to work as a manager for Express clothing store but now stays home with the children full time.
The Agards knew Kreul in a neighborly way.
“He would walk by a lot and used to always say, ‘You are blessed with such great boys.’ And he would talk about his house,” said Sarah.
Kreul was trying to grow grass at his house and the Agards were trying to grow grass in their back yard. He was always asking “How is your grass growing?” and admitting, “Mine isn’t doing so well.”
He also told the Agards that his house sat on the highest point in Madison.
“He’d have us stand there. ‘Stand here, this is the highest point in Madison,’ ” Sarah said, with an amused smile. “He always took care of his house.”
Although the explosion was caused by a buildup of natural gas, investigators are trying to determine where the gas came from and why it ignited. Madison Fire Department officials said they will finally announce a cause of the explosion sometime next week.
That determination can’t come too soon for most neighbors.
“I think that’s something our neighborhood really needs to know before we can have closure on this. It’s like this blank question that everyone asks each other, ‘Have you heard anything yet? Have you heard anything yet?’ ” said Jesse Buske.
“This could have happened anywhere. It could have happened in any neighborhood, to anybody and we really need to know why.”