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Sun Prairie gas leak explosion aeria

The intersection of Main and Bristol streets in downtown Sun Prairie was destroyed after a July 10 natural gas explosion rocked the city.

A contractor that specializes in locating and marking underground utilities to prevent accidents failed to properly mark a natural gas line that was struck by a communications construction firm, which led to a massive explosion in downtown Sun Prairie in July that killed a fire department captain, according to a search warrant unsealed in Dane County Circuit Court.

The search warrant, filed under seal on July 27 and unsealed on Oct. 17, states that a Wisconsin-based worker for USIC, an Indiana company that has offices all over the U.S., failed to correctly mark the gas line in the street, where it was actually located, and instead marked a spot on a sidewalk about 25 feet away where there was no gas line.

The warrant was to search the public street for evidence that could support a charge of second-degree reckless homicide for the death of Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr, who was killed July 10 when gas that poured out of a rupture in a 4-inch natural gas line was ignited. Another firefighter, Ryan Welch, was critically injured in the explosion.

Sun Prairie officials and officials for USIC, including an attorney for the company named in the search warrant, did not respond to messages about the search warrant. District Attorney Ismael Ozanne also did not respond to messages.

The worker, who lives in Columbia County, was identified in the search warrant but is not being named by the Wisconsin State Journal because he has not been charged with a crime. In July he refused to talk to investigators when they went to his home, telling investigators that he had been told not to speak with law enforcement. Police later received a letter from a criminal defense attorney representing the man, who wrote that the man would not be speaking with law enforcement, according to an affidavit with the search warrant.

The warrant sought any electronic storage devices and data stored on equipment that was being used to do underground boring at the time the gas line was struck, items related to fiber communications conduit, and sections of the gas line.

According to the search warrant affidavit:

Buildings at 100 and 104 W. Main St. in Sun Prairie exploded about 40 minutes after a gas leak had been reported to 911. Properties from 100 to 113 W. Main St., on both sides of the street, were destroyed.

Valentine Cociuba of VC Tech, which was subcontracted by Verizon contractor Bear Communications to place a fiber communication line underground for Verizon, told investigators that Bear had told him that Diggers Hotline had been called on July 9, and that VC Tech could do its horizontal-directional boring through Bristol Street and Main Street.

Work began after looking over lines painted by USIC and formulating a plan, Cociuba told investigators. He said in the southwest corner of the Bristol-Main Street intersection, he and other VC Tech employees smelled gas and called 911. He took a photo of the area with his phone before evacuating the area, which showed no “T” markings indicating an intersecting utility, such as a gas line, on the pavement.

Investigators later confirmed that on the ground above the area where VC Tech struck a gas line, there were no markings indicating an intersecting utility. Instead, there was a yellow painted T on the sidewalk about 25 feet to the north of the damaged gas pipe. No gas line was located there.

Another company, RG Houston, was called to locate the gas lines in the area and confirmed the findings.

State Department of Criminal Investigation Agent Ryan Windorff was also provided a map by We Energies showing the gas utilities in the area. The gas line was in the road, he noted, not on the sidewalk as marked by USIC.

Sun Prairie Police Detective David Hall tried to reach several employees of USIC but was referred to the company’s attorney. The company refused to identify the employee who marked the utilities at Bristol and Main streets but said it would release that information if ordered to by a court.

Cociuba told police that on July 10 he spoke with a supervisor for another horizontal-directional boring company that was on West Main Street near Bristol Street and had discussed the painted gas line markings with that person. That supervisor made a call to a USIC employee, whose name Cociuba overheard, leading him to believe that that person had located and marked the utilities in the area.

On July 16, Hall received information from an anonymous source that the USIC employee was the Columbia County man whom police later visited.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.