Report: Wisconsin Captain Killed in Natural Gas Explosion

Risk versus gain listed in report from 2018 line of duty death

Bill Carey
15 July 2021

CINCINNATI, Ohio – The NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program released the report on the death of a captain and injury of a firefighter in a gas explosion in Wisconsin in 2018.

The incident occurred on 18 July 2018 in Sun Prairie and killed Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department Captain Cory James Barr.

Captain Barr’s death is listed by the United States Fire Administration with a Nature of Death being Trauma due to multiple blunt impact injuries, caught in the building debris when the explosion occurred. His Activity Type is Other. Barr and two other firefighters had entered the building’s basement to shut off the power. They decided against it after the gas meter alarmed at 100% and they exited the building. As they were stepping out of the doorway the building exploded.

The incident began as a report of as a gas odor at a pizza restaurant in the next block from the explosion building. That building was a two-story building, a bar on the first floor and apartments above, with a basement. It was noted in the initial reporting and in the NIOSH report that the victim was a commercial tenant and in the process of four-year purchase agreement.

At first glance this may not appear to have any relation to the incident but it is linked to one of the recommendations in the report, “Fire departments should ensure that firefighters are trained in situational awareness, personal safety, and accountability.” [1], and that also includes situational awareness, go/no go, and rules.

The report mentions more than once firefighters and police officers had to deal with civilians not wanting to leave the pizza restaurant, and also reentering the expanding hot zone through different points that “could not be controlled.”[2]

After the explosion, a firefighter up the street from the blast side of the building saw the firefighter with the captain partially buried by the debris. He assisted the injured firefighter out of the debris and away toward EMS.

Firefighters began searching the debris for the captain and working to extinguish the fire. Firefighters searching for the captain were ordered to remove their SCBA as it was slowing them down (the temperature was 74-degrees). As two firefighters went to remove their SCBA they noticed the reflective trim of a firefighting boot. The captain was found face down in the debris, only the boot and his head were visible.

The reflective trim is worth noting as it is highlighted in the recommendations to related to contributing factors[3]. It is implied that had the victim been wearing a PASS device separate from SCBA it may have activated alerting firefighters searching for him in the debris, likely finding him faster. There is no indication or reporting that states the lack of a PASS device or the time spent searching contributed to the victim’s death. It is not specifically stated if the victim was or was not wearing SCBA. The report only states the victim was “in full turnout gear.”

A simple timeline is provided in the report:
1820: Gas leak reported.
1821: Fire department dispatched.
1822: Firefighters arrive.
1905: Victim and firefighters exit building. Building explodes.
1906: Injured firefighter located and removed.
1912: Victim located.

The cause of the gas leak was unpermitted directional boring for a utility.

Expert technical review for the report was done by Chief Jerry Knapp. A technical review was also provided by the National Fire Protection Association, Emergency Response and Responder Safety (ERRS) Division.

This report includes a new attachment from the NIOSH program, a visual short version built with simple graphics that do nothing more than mention the contributing factors and key recommendations.

Apparently it is CliffsNotes for LODDs. Why we need to have the information simplified to this degree I cannot answer.

National Fallen Firefighters Foundation: Cory James Barr


  1. One Firefighter Dies and Another Injured in Natural Gas Line Explosion— Wisconsin, NIOSH,, Recommendation No.3,
    “In this incident, the IC and Fire Chief working with the Police supervisor continued to reevaluate conditions. Due to migrating natural gas in the 150-year-old infrastructure “Hot Zones” were difficult to establish due to elevated readings in multiple buildings. Additionally, police and fire crews having to deal with breaches from curious residents entering the area from alleyways and other locations that could not be controlled. Police perimeters were moved out three blocks from the initial response location. Command Location was moved five times during the operation. The Captain was assigned to utilities due to his knowledge of the buildings in the area which housed his restaurant/pub business. Although the building had previously been evacuated by the first responding crew, the Captain requested to re-enter the structure to control utilities as called for in the department’s SOPs. The IC utilized an accountability board upon arrival, and regained control of accountability post explosion.”
  2. Ibid.
  3. One Firefighter Dies and Another Injured in Natural Gas Line Explosion— Wisconsin, NIOSH,, Recommendation No.9, “Fire departments should provide manual personal alert safety system (PASS) or tracking devices to locate potentially missing firefighters when Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) are not utilized.”
    “In this scenario, an SCBA with the integrated PASS device would not be activated since the SCBA would not be turned on. If an unexpected explosion or collapse occurs, there may not be an indication that a firefighter is down because the PASS would not be activated. The use of a manually activated device in these types of situations may be helpful to pinpoint a firefighter’s location. In this incident, the Captain was missing, and firefighters were looking for him in the rubble. He was found when members from the search crew saw the reflective portion of his right boot. An active PASS alarm may have alerted search crews to his location more effectively.”

Main image courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, YouTube.
Graphic image courtesy of NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program.

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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