“I’m just thankful we’re safe”: Sun Prairie rallies around neighbors, shelter after tragic explosion

by Justin Kern, communications officer, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

The morning after an explosion up the street from her apartment, Patricia Friese paced the basketball court at the Sun Prairie High School, where she and her son waited for updates on their homes and city at a Red Cross shelter.

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Snacks and conversation at a Red Cross shelter in the Sun Prairie H.S. gymnasium, the morning after a tragic explosion.

Patricia’s phone had died and she knew family members would be worried. The sassy, silver-haired longtime Sun Prairie resident had the clothes on her back and no idea what might be left of her apartment, much less her cell phone charger. Turns out, volunteer Judy Giacomino had brought along a “handy dandy charger” that fit Patricia’s phone, enabling her to make a round of calls to family that ended with a similar sentiment: “I’m just thankful we’re safe.”

Patricia and David Friese were two of dozens of Sun Prairie residents evacuated and displaced by an explosion attributed to a ruptured natural gas line downtown on July 10. Within hours, quaint and quiet downtown Sun Prairie had been pulled into the national spotlight with shattered storefront windows, smoldering homes and businesses, and public mourning for a community paragon. The explosion claimed the life of Cory Barr, a father, volunteer fire captain and business owner, and injured two other firefighters. (More on supporting Barr’s family here; and one of the injured firefighters here.)

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Volunteer Judy Giacomino, left, talks with a local family who visited the Red Cross shelter with gifts of children’s books & toys.

Sections of downtown remained cordoned off for days as emergency officials took stock of the threats and damage. Sun Prairie High School graciously opened its doors to the community as the host of a Red Cross reception center that developed into a shelter by Tuesday night. Through Friday afternoon, when the last family was transitioned to temporary lodging elsewhere, the Red Cross shelter at Sun Prairie H.S. served 75 clients impacted by the explosion, including dozens of cots for sleep/rest, just shy of 600 meals and 1,387 snacks served, as well as connections to comfort kits, and health and mental health services. As shelter operations wrapped up that Friday, Red Cross and a handful of community partners organized a multi-agency resource center (MARC) to help streamline additional recovery efforts for residents.

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David Friese said he “didn’t know what we were coming home to” after a blast near his downtown apartment.

Among those at the shelter early Wednesday was David Friese, who has lived a floor away from his mother, Patricia, in the same downtown apartment building for the past seven years. David said the two of them and a friend were in Oneida when, unbeknownst to them, the explosion took place. Then, while his phone was still powered, he heard the news from his daughter and the family immediately made the two-hour drive back to Sun Prairie to an unknown situation.

“We didn’t know what we were coming home to, what we were … going to see. My daughter texted, she said, ‘Go to the high school, go to the Red Cross,’” he said.

Credit is due to the substantial and fast help rallied by community organizations and members around those impacted amid sad, uncertain circumstances. Local nonprofit Sunshine Place provided numerous meals and the Bank of Sun Prairie set up a disaster relief fund. Other remarkable partners at the shelter or MARC included Sun Prairie School District, Dane County Emergency Management, Lions Club, Knights of Columbus, United Way, Salvation Army, Chase Lumber, Culver’s, Walmart, American Family Insurance, Mayor Paul Esser’s office, and local fire and law enforcement. That just touches on the every-day expressions of kindness from neighbors who stopped by the shelter to ask how to volunteer, to drop-off a case of water or children’s books, or to offer their therapy dogs.

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Joyce Dingman, left, and Barbara Huber, right, talk with a resident who was inspired to sign up as a fellow volunteer.

Back at the shelter on the first morning after the explosion, two Red Cross volunteers from Dane County with differing experience levels worked the entrance table. Joyce Dingman, at her first shelter, and Barbara Huber, a 15-year volunteer with multiple regional and national deployments, had fielded a morning of clients in need, media with requests and community members looking to give. During a lull over lunch, Dingman and Huber shared perspectives on the shelter.

“You think of the people that first night. But other people come in, they need assistance and they haven’t seen anyone yet,” Dingman remarked. “It’s great to be here [for them].”

Huber said that no two shelters are alike. Each night she’s volunteered at a Red Cross shelter, Huber said she comes home with thoughts on what went well and what could’ve been done differently. Above all, she shared with Dingman, volunteers and staff come together to provide a refuge for those in need, far and wide.

“It’s amazing how fast it comes together and we’re able to do all we can,” she said.

Fast, thorough responses to unexpected disasters like these are possible because of support and volunteering from people like you. Here are ways you can get involved in the Red Cross mission to help those in crisis. 

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Installing smoke alarms and peace of mind

by Justin Kern, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

For Renee Hovland and Ms. Bowman, volunteers installed peace of mind along with smoke alarms during recent communitywide events.

The two Wisconsin residents welcomed Red Cross volunteers and partners into their respective homes as part of “Sound the Alarm, Save a Life,” a national campaign to reduce injury and death from home fires.

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Volunteers receive tools, alarms and instruction in Madison at event host, American Family Insurance HQ.

Hundreds of volunteers teamed up with a goal to install 1,400 smoke alarms during separate, daylong events in Milwaukee and Madison. Other cities and counties have or will hold their own installation roundups. (Click here to sign up for a free smoke alarm installed as part of this ongoing campaign.)

During the recent communitywide events in Milwaukee and Madison, Renee and Ms. Bowman shared the stories behind their installations.

‘It means the world to me’
Renee Hovland and her family know firsthand the impact of a house fire.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 11 years ago, a candle burned out of control and “took down our whole house,” she said. Seven fire crews came to the site of their house in McFarland, on the outskirts of Madison, even tapping a neighbor’s pool to help contain the blaze.

The Hovlands – Renee, her husband Eric, their two daughters, plus three dogs and two cats – lost that home and all their possessions. But, they were alive and unscathed. They rebuilt on the same property.

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Charles installs an alarm at the Hovland house with his family team, Crystal (center) and Samantha.

So, when they received a flyer about the fire department and Red Cross teaming up to install smoke alarms on May 5, Renee made an appointment.

“We had hardwired smoke detectors when we rebuilt and some of them are past the date that they’re still working,” Renee said. “It’s been something that’s bothering me, knowing that don’t have current alarm equipment that’s working. To me, this is a huge deal.”

A volunteer team of four family members installed five smoke alarms in the Hovland house and talked through an escape plan with Eric. As Renee brought their dogs outside to prevent a distraction, she reflected on the sense of security she’s gained from the free installations.

“It means the world to me,” she said. “I honestly can’t afford to buy that many [smoke alarms] and putting them up on a ladder, with my health, I can’t do that. It’s huge, a huge help.”

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In his Milwaukee kitchen, Donta Geter, right, talks through a fire escape plan with Red Cross volunteer Shelly Grasso.

‘That’s a blessing’
Donta Geter invited a team of Red Cross volunteers from Marquette University into his family’s majestic, three-story red brick home in Milwaukee’s Cold Spring Park neighborhood on April 28. Donta pointed to a few spots in and around the living room that lacked a working smoke alarm. Then, he helped his grandmother – who introduced herself as “Ms. Bowman” – into the kitchen to establish a fire escape plan with volunteer Shelly Grasso.

Shelly drew an escape map onto a dry erase board with input from Donta and Ms. Bowman, as the other volunteers snaked their way up the home’s back stairwell to install alarms on the second story and in the attic.

“Nope, we don’t have a plan,” said Ms. Bowman. “We were always under the assumption that if there’s a front entrance and a back exit, you go out [of one of those]. But … you might have to go out of one of these windows!”

Milwaukee Sound the Alarm pin 2018Ms. Bowman and Donta talked with Shelly about the best ways to get out in the event of a disaster, and then posted that map on their refrigerator. In the meantime the other volunteers had finished installing three new alarms and replacing another.
Ms. Bowman remarked: “Thank you for all of this. That’s a blessing.”

For more information on the home fire safety campaign – including installation signups and volunteering – click here.