Explosion destroys church
Seven injured, including three firefighters
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.”