“No one called 911.” Detectives want witnesses, victims of explosion to come forward

Investigators say a drum of diesel and gasoline mix was thrown onto the bonfire and exploded
Published: Oct. 17, 2022 at 10:51 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 17, 2022 at 10:02 PM CDT
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SHAWANO COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Shawano County officials are asking people to come forward with information about a bonfire explosion that injured dozens of young people from the Pulaski area as the school district makes people aware of counseling and grief services.

The sheriff’s office says multiple detectives have been assigned to the case. The department says the Pulaski Community School District has informed them that officers and detectives will not be allowed to conduct interviews at schools in the district.

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, detectives will be at the Pulaski Police Department at 585 E. Glenbrook Drive from 4 P.M. to 9 P.M. They are asking any victims or witnesses who have not spoken to law enforcement to come to the department and meet with detectives at that time.

“The sheriff’s office is attempting to, and wants to gather as much information as possible regarding this case, which includes statements and possible videos to show what happened at this tragic event,” reads a statement from Chief Deputy George Lenzner, Shawano County Sheriff’s Office.

“We just want to figure out what happened. We want closure just like the Pulaski community does, so we’re not concerned about giving underage drinking tickets, we’re not concerned about that, we’re concerned about finding out what happened,” Lt. Chris Madle of the sheriff’s office told us.

According to investigators, a group of young people had been celebrating homecoming at a bonfire on a property on Cedar Dr. in the town of Maple Grove, where it’s believed someone threw a 55-gallon drum of a diesel and regular gasoline mix onto the fire.

A witness told Action 2 News as soon as the drum hit the fire, a giant mushroom cloud rose into the air and the spout of the drum, which was pointed sideways, spewed fire like a flame thrower.

The witness said like a horror movie victims were running around, burning, rolling on the ground, trying to put their fire out.

In total, the department estimates there were between 30 and 40 victims. Yet Shawano County authorities only learned about the explosion in the early morning hours of Saturday, Oct. 15, after victims started showing up at Green Bay-area hospitals.

“No one called 911,” Lt. Madle said. with the sheriff’s office said. “We don’t know exactly why, but everyone self-transported to the hospital. At least Green Bay was smart enough to give us a call and say, ‘Hey, you might want to look into this.’ So, that’s how we got involved.”

Madle told us detectives have an estimate of about 17 victims who self-transported to hospitals in the area. Some injuries are described as “critical.” Some victims have been released.

Authorities have been able to speak with several victims, witnesses, and the property owner, and detectives know more people were at the bonfire. The sheriff’s office believes there were several witnesses who were not hurt.

Investigators aren’t at the point where they believe there was any criminal intent to cause injury but there might be other charges forthcoming. “There are statutes about mishandling of burning materials, reckless endangering safety. I don’t want to go to conclusions about what will happen, but based on statements, it could point that direction one day,” Madle said.

Drinking during a bonfire is not unheard of, but investigators aren’t focused on that part. The lieutenant added, “Everyone has been very cooperative. I know this weekend we had some parents that brought their kids in that were involved. So the homeowner, to my knowledge, I don’t know that name of the homeowner, but he’s been cooperative with law enforcement. Everyone involved has been cooperative. So we’re just trying to piece it all together.”

They’re asking people to come forward and not be afraid of getting in trouble.

“Underage drinking is a serious thing, we shouldn’t be underage drinking, but an incident like this, we have kids that have very severe burns, they’re critical, in hospitals that have been flighted. We just want to get to the bottom of this. We’re not concerned about issuing underage drinking tickets, regardless,” Madle said.

If you’d like to speak to detectives, you can call the Shawano County Sheriff’s Office at (715) 526-3111.

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Shawano County authorities don't want witnesses to be afraid of getting in trouble

CLICK HERE to find out how you can support the victims and their families or find GoFundMe pages for some of the families at the end of this article.

The Pulaski Community School District says it will have counselors, a school psychologist and a social worker available to students every day for as long as they’re needed. Resources are available for parents, too (CLICK HERE for details on the school district website).

For the community, crisis walk-in appointments for Shawano County residents are available at W7327 Anderson Ave. in Shawano Monday through Friday from 8 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. and for Brown County residents at 3150 Gershwin Dr. in Green Bay 24 hours a day.

If you need immediate help, dial 988 or call a crisis line in your county:

Brown County: 1-920-436-8888

Oconto County: 1-920-496-7000

Outagamie County: 1-920-832-4646

Shawano County: 1-715-526-3240

Victim fundraisers

Shawano County investigators say they want to get answers for the community, not give citations for underage drinking