BEAVER DAM — The recovery of some residents’ belongings just before the controlled burn that destroyed their apartment building here Thursday offered the first piece of good news since an explosion in one of the apartments on March 5 killed a man who was allegedly making bombs.
But it was hard to find anybody speaking in an optimistic tone.
Beaver Dam Fire Chief Alan Mannel used the word “bittersweet” to describe the planned inferno that reached 1,600 degrees and turned the two-story building at 109 Knaup Drive into a heap of burning cinders in less than three hours.
Nobody was hurt during the operation and the fire was hot enough for FBI bomb experts to confirm that no explosive materials remained on site, Mannel said.
“I’m glad it’s over,” he said.
The building was destroyed because bomb experts believed they couldn’t remove all of the explosive material and unstable chemicals found there after some of it detonated in an apartment and apparently killed 28-year-old Benjamin Morrow, who had recently moved to Beaver Dam, authorities said.
Bomb experts detonated explosives they found inside the building two days after the initial blast. But that was followed by an unplanned explosion less than 24 hours later. Officials then deemed the building so unsafe that residents weren’t allowed to return to collect their valuables before it was destroyed.
But FBI bomb experts changed their minds and retrieved some valuables from all but two apartments, Beaver Dam Mayor Becky Glewen said.
“I just met with a number of individuals who were picking up those items,” Glewen said Thursday afternoon. “It’s quite frankly very emotional to have everything left of your lives put in front of you in two totes.”
About 20 residents — some of whom were pushing baby strollers or brought their dogs adorned in sweaters — watched the blaze from a parking lot a few hundred yards away from the apartment building. American Red Cross and Dodge County health department officials offered support.
Reid Steinbach, who shared an apartment with his fiancee and their 11-month-old daughter, says officials told residents that they are unsure when, or if, they can search through the rubble for whatever belongings survived the raging fire. One of the most important items Steinbach said he wants to search for are the original dog tags from a relative who served in World War II.
“We all have things that we will want to look for,” he said.
The building material will continue to burn and produce smoke for several days, Mannel said. He said mandatory evacuation of apartment buildings closest to the fire had not been fully lifted because the EPA was monitoring the air quality in the apartments.
While officials believe the fire quelled any remaining safety questions, they are seeking answers to what caused the explosion that killed Morrow, who worked as a quality control technician at Richelieu Foods in Beaver Dam. Morrow started working there last June after spending more than three years as a scientist for a Middleton research company, according to his LinkedIn page.
An alert sent out by the FBI Thursday requested assistance from law enforcement agencies and the public for information about Morrow and his activities and associations over the past year.
A Richelieu employee who interacted with Morrow every day said he was polite and rarely made eye contact with people.
“He was a skinny young thing,” said Margaret Campbell. “I was surprised to hear that he was 28 because he didn’t look 20. But he did a good job.”
Campbell, 55, who watched the controlled burn near where the residents were observing, also said Morrow’s demeanor never changed.
“He always had a straight face and didn’t say much,” she said. “I didn’t even know his name, to tell you the truth. I’ve learned more about him since (the explosion) than when I was working with him.”
One of Morrow’s jobs was to cook and sample some of the frozen pizzas as they came down the assembly line at the food manufacturing company, Campbell said. Richelieu makes pizzas for more than 40 labels, she said.
“He’d cut off a little sample to taste it to make sure it tasted good. The rest of the pizza went to the employees’ break room,” Campbell said.
Morrow also checked on Campbell, an employee for the past nine years at Richelieu who cleans and sanitizes equipment.
“I’d ask him if I tested right with my equipment and he’d say it came out good. That was the major part of the conversation I had with him,” she said.
But she talked enough with Morrow to learn that he moved to Beaver Dam from Madison late last fall. “He told me when he first started working here that he didn’t like the drive from Madison. I told him I could walk to work. Later, he told me, ‘Now I’m walking to work, too.’”
Although Morrow wasn’t identified as the victim until Wednesday, some Richelieu employees guessed it was Morrow within a day of the explosion, according to Campbell.
“He didn’t show up for work that night. He was a no-call, no-show and he never called in sick,” Campbell said. “A fellow employee told me, ‘We put two and two together the next day.’ ”
The Beaver Dam Daily Citizen contributed to this report.