Ex­plo­sion de­stroys church

Seven in­jured, in­clud­ing three fire­fight­ers

The Covington News - - Religion - By Sarah Karush

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. — An ex­plo­sion and fire in south­east­ern Wis­con­sin on Wed­nes­day de­mol­ished a church, gut­ted two homes and in­jured seven peo­ple, in­clud­ing three fire­fight­ers, au­thor­i­ties said.

Road and sewer work was be­ing done in down­town Oconomowoc be­fore the ex­plo­sion oc­curred around 1:30 p.m. at First Bap­tist Church, said Bob Duffy, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor for the lake­side com­mu­nity 30 miles west of Mil­wau­kee. The blast and fly­ing de­bris knocked over sev­eral work­ers, he said.

“It shook my house,” said Joy Freuden­stein, 30, who lives three blocks away and was clean­ing when she heard a boom. “It sounded like some­one down­stairs blew some­thing up.”

WE En­er­gies had re­ceived a call from a con­trac­tor about an hour ear­lier, say­ing work- ers smelled gas and may have hit a line, com­pany spokesman Brian Manthey said. The com­pany sent out a crew, and one of its work­ers was among the in­jured, he said.

The worker was flown to Froedtert Me­mo­rial Lutheran Hospi­tal in sub­ur­ban Mil­wau­kee, hospi­tal spokes­woman Carolyn Bellin said.

Four peo­ple, in­clud­ing a fire­fighter, were treated at Oconomowoc Me­mo­rial Hospi­tal with cuts, bruises, abra­sions and smoke in­hala­tion, hospi­tal spokes­woman San­dra Peter­son said. All four had been re­leased by Wed­nes­day night, she said.

Duffy said two other fire­fight­ers were treated for lesser in­juries.

WE En­er­gies spokesman Rick James said the com­pany turned off nat­u­ral gas ser­vice to about 150 cus­tomers in the area around the church, and emer­gency work­ers evac­u­ated nearby homes and busi­nesses.

Two in­ves­ti­ga­tors from the Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion were sent to the scene, said Chris­tine Zort­man, as­sis­tant area di­rec­tor in Mil­wau­kee.

White smoke bil­lowed from what re­mained of the nearly cen­tury-old church and a neigh­bor­ing home, ob­scur­ing the view of the 100 or so peo­ple who had gath­ered out­side.

Wauke­sha County Board Su­per­vi­sor Ken­neth Herro, who works a block away as a real es­tate agent, said he heard the ex­plo­sion and walked to the scene.

“We have re­ally large win­dows, all the win­dows just kind of bowed out,” he said.

He said he smelled nat­u­ral gas and am­bu­lances were pulling away as he ar­rived. One house on each side of the church was on fire, he said.

“The church ba­si­cally had dis­ap­peared,” Herro said.

First Bap­tist Church was built in 1913, said Arlo Re­ichter, ex­ec­u­tive min­is­ter of the Amer­i­can Bap­tist Churches of Wis­con­sin. It has about 35 mem­bers, mainly in their late 70s and 80s, said Sam Brink, who has served as tem­po­rary pas­tor since Jan­uary.

Con­gre­gants had been es­pe­cially fond of the church’s stained glass win­dows and pipe or­gan, Brink said, but the great­est loss was to a decades-old col­lec­tion of ser­mons recorded on CDs.

“That’s an oral his­tory, and now it’s gone for­ever,” he said. “So many mem­o­ries, gone.”

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