“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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Red Cross supporting families affected by Wisconsin corn mill explosion

Cambria, Wis., June 1, 2017 – Following a deadly corn mill explosion in Cambria, Wis., on June 1, the American Red Cross is providing the affected families with emotional support services.

“Trained mental health counselors are on-the-ground working directly with the people impacted by this tragic event,” said Barbara Behling, spokesperson for the American Red Cross Wisconsin Region.

When people experience a disaster or other stressful life event, they can have a variety of reactions, all of which can be common responses to difficult situations. These reactions can include:

  • Feeling physically and mentally drained
  • Having difficulty making decisions or staying focused on topics
  • Becoming easily frustrated on a more frequent basis
  • Arguing more with family and friends
  • Feeling tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Most of these reactions are temporary and will go away over time. Try to accept whatever reactions you may have. Look for ways to take one step at a time and focus on taking care of your disaster-related needs and those of your family.

The Red Cross advises parents to keep a close eye on the children. When disaster strikes, a child’s view of the world as a safe and predictable place is temporarily lost. Children of different ages react in different ways to trauma, but how parents and other adults react following any traumatic event can help children recover more quickly and more completely.

For additional information visit redcross.org.

Media Contact:

Barbara Behling, barbara.behling@redcross.org

American Red Cross

920-642-0404