As investigators began the painstaking search for clues to explain what caused a house to explode on Madison’s Southwest Side Wednesday afternoon, officials were not ruling out that somebody was inside the house during the blast.
The house that exploded at about 2 p.m. at 7806 Stratton Way, near where High Point Road intersects with Highway PD, was deemed a total loss by Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis.
“We had a pretty significant fire and a pretty significant area of debris,” he said.
Officials were in contact with the owners of the house after the blast, but police and fire personnel at the scene remained in “search and rescue mode” four hours later because they were still unsure if anybody was inside during the blast, Davis said.
The most recent owners of the house are Steven and Lee Anne Pirus, according to online court records.
Madison fire investigators are taking the lead in finding the cause of the blast and investigators from Madison police, the state Fire Marshall’s office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will assist them, according to Davis.
“They have to work through the process of piecing together the house,” Davis said. “They won’t do it on scene but they have to document everything. They have to go through every piece of insulation to check for any evidence that might lead us back to the cause of this thing. We are a long way from determining a cause.”
A civilian and a firefighter suffered injuries that weren’t life-threatening, according to Davis. He said he had no information on the civilian or how he or she sustained the injuries.
The debris field was about 400 feet from the site of the blast and some neighboring homes were damaged “but it’s pretty minimal,” Davis said. He said residents of eight homes close to the explosion would not be allowed to return to their homes Wednesday night and, perhaps, Thursday night.
The Red Cross and the Salvation Army were on site to help anyone displaced from their homes.
The site was being treated as a crime scene “until proven otherwise,” Madison police Capt. Cory Nelson said.
Cory Zeman, who lives in a condo on Stratton Way about a block away from where the house exploded, said he saw no signs of a house on a foundation after the blast. “All I saw was just a bonfire,” he said.
One wall from the house was on the median on nearby High Point Road, a portion of another wall was on the front of the lot and glass “was everywhere” near the intersection of Stratton Way and High Point Road, Zeman said.
The explosion occurred as Zeman was waking up from a nap. “I heard a big boom,” he said.
“It felt as if a vehicle had hit the (condo). I felt the entire building shake,” Zeman said. “My dog, Stinqur, was all shook up by it.”
Samantha Bock, who also lives about a block away from the house, said she heard “a huge loud crash” when the house exploded. Bock, a nurse who works the night shift, was sleeping at the time and said the blast “shook her awake.”
“I got up and out of bed and let the dog out and then I looked over and saw flames shooting up very high from where the house had exploded,” she said. “The flames were enormous.”
Witnesses reported hearing other explosions after the initial one — several smaller blasts in succession while the fire was raging — but it wasn’t known what caused the explosions.
Bock and Zeman said they hadn’t seen anybody at the house recently but they have seen — and heard — dogs there.
“The dogs are always barking there,” Zeman said.
One dog was running loose at the explosion site and “animal control through public health dealt with that animal,” Davis said.
Heavy smoke was visible miles away, and multiple ladder trucks were pouring water onto burning debris. Ambulances and several MG&E vehicles also were on the scene.
Firefighters had the fire under control about 30 minutes after they arrived, Davis said.
Madison Fire sent five engine companies, three ambulances and two ladder companies to the blast site and some will remain on site for a few days, Davis said. “The best thing the community can do is respect (the work being done) and give us some space,” he said.
State Journal reporters Bill Novak and Amanda Finn contributed to this report.