In the spring of 2005 a massive disaster drill was held in Sister Bay involving several Door County and state emergency response departments and agencies.
The drill was funded with Homeland Security dollars and imagined a scenario with multiple explosions at different locations and a gas attack. The United States Coast Guard, Army Reserves, Sheriff’s Department, and several fire departments swarmed downtown Sister Bay. At the time, the picture seemed far-fetched in the quiet community of Northern Door, but little more than a year later the drill became a startlingly similar reality in Ellison Bay.
At about 2:30 am on July 10, 2006, a series of blasts rattled the town – some said two, some three, others swore they heard more. Patrick and Margaret Higdon, parents of three, were killed. Seven others were hospitalized. An underground propane line at Cedar Grove Resort had been severed days prior, leaking gas through the Swiss cheese rock awaiting a spark.
Investigator’s couldn’t conclusively determine what that spark was, but the end result was two people dead, many more injured, three buildings destroyed, and a community in shock.
By the time early risers were taking their first sips of coffee that morning, images of the Pioneer Store in rubble were splashed on the local news screens. One of the oldest symbols of Door County reduced to a single, fragile story, its wares spewed across the highway.
Liberty Grove Town Chairman Charlie Most woke up to the images on his television at about 5:30 am, though he couldn’t immediately tell it was his town on the screen.
“It took a little time to recognize the intersection because it didn’t look much like the Pioneer Store,” Most recalled.
Ann DeMeuse, Door County Emergency Management Director, received a call from the Red Cross in the pre-dawn hours of July 10. By 5 am she was in Ellison Bay coming to grips with the reality of what had happened.
“I needed information on what was real,” she said. “You figure there would be some exaggeration, but there was none. The devastation area surprised me.”
A page alerted Chris Hecht, Chief of the Sister Bay/Liberty Grove Fire Department, to an explosion at about 2:30 am. He knew from the alert it was a large event but was still surprised by the “scope and size of the disaster.”
Hecht and other responders first worked to secure the safety of the people and responders while trying to gain an understanding of how the explosion happened. Responders worked long days in stops and starts as the community speculated on the cause and wondered if more explosions were to come.
The Red Cross stepped up to help relocate people by finding lodging and shelter. Hecht said they were a huge help to his department.
“We could evacuate people from the area, but we lacked the capacity to find them all places to go,” he said. “They also provided food, nourishment, and hydration to our people.”
While workers sifted through the rubble for clues, media from around the state and country swarmed the scene in search of any angle to fill airtime and pages, leaving local agencies to take a crash course in media management.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve with the media for everybody involved,” Hecht said. “We worked together among different agencies to establish what the media briefings should be and make sure we were all on the same page.”
In the height of tourist season, normally placid Door County was pasted on television news, including CNN, home to a tragedy.
DeMeuse, Most and Hecht said the previous year’s drill helped them prepare for the tragedy and the uncertainty that followed.
“It was unusually similar to this event,” DeMeuse said. “It involved the coast guard and mass casualties. That experience helped us through the chaos. It familiarized people with one another and many of the skills and procedures from that day were utilized in Ellison Bay.”
That drill exposed inter-agency communication problems that were much improved by the time of the Ellison Bay explosions. The response required communication and interaction between no less than 13 agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the United States Coast Guard, the state Department of Natural Resources, and the Red Cross as well as local emergency responders.
“It helped significantly on many fronts,” Hecht said. “Communication will never be perfect, but it was a lot better because of things we learned in that drill.”
DeMeuse called communication the biggest challenge she faced. Not only were there an unusual number of agencies involved, but they were scattered among several locations. Citizens were also clamoring for information.
Most of the attention in the days that followed the explosions centered on Carol Newman’s century-old Pioneer Store and what its loss would mean to the town. Many complained the media and officials were overlooking the Higdon family’s loss in favor of a building. DeMeuse said that wasn’t the case.
“One of the largest challenges was the frustration in the community with the media’s focus on the Pioneer Store versus the families who lost loved ones,” she said. “But they don’t realize we’re limited on what we could release about those families. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prevents us from giving the media much information. It’s there to protect, not slight the families. So the media goes with what information they can get.”
The family subsequently filed a civil suit seeking damages from several companies.
Most said there were aspects he wishes they had handled better, such as communication and getting the highway open sooner, but on the whole the disaster management impressed him.
“The emergency meeting went well,” he said. “The Town Board distinguished itself. And Ann DeMeuse really did a tremendous job coordinating everything.”
The disaster was hard on responders, and Hecht said he wished he had brought in more mutual aid from other departments to ease the burden on his men and women. The county felt a financial toll and eventually requested $179,000 in reimbursement from the Wisconsin Disaster Fund, meant to aid municipalities and counties when a disaster declaration is made but it doesn’t qualify for federal disaster relief. They received $125,000.
Hecht said the tragedy taught him a lot about his people and the community he serves.
“Our people are fantastic,” he said. “Put in the face of adversity they will step up, but the community stepped up as well. The support we received was absolutely staggering.”
Less than a year later, the Pioneer Store is nearly back and the town is hopeful of a larger resurrection; however, the events of that morning remain in the minds of those who were there.
“A year later you wouldn’t know a disaster ever happened there,” Most said. “But it will always be etched in my memory.”