Kathy Hagen was friends with her neighbor who lived in apartment 11 at 109 Knaup Drive before Benjamin Morrow moved into the unit, so she was curious about the new resident and asked her landlord about him.
“She told me that he was just a nice young man,” Hagen said.
But Morrow had a dangerous pastime of working with chemicals in that apartment and threw the lives around him into chaos a year ago today. A chemical explosion in the early afternoon of March 5 claimed Morrow’s life and forced the evacuation of his building and several nearby, as well as the fiery destruction of the structure that housed the bombed-out unit days later.
Hagen, who was in her apartment with her daughter, saw the wall bow in toward them and the pictures fall to the floor when the explosion happened.
Hagen said it was easy to figure out later why Morrow’s garage at the Village Glen complex smelled like moth balls, but at the time no one knew that a chemical he was working with would cause that smell.
Officials deemed the chemicals in Morrow’s apartment left over after the initial explosion caused such a danger that the building’s residents were not allowed to return. A second, intentional explosion two days after the initial blast did not mitigate the danger, and the building was destroyed by a controlled fire the following week.
“The hardest days were between the explosion and the fire,” Hagen said.
Even after the planned second explosion, Hagen said the residents had hoped to have some of their possessions returned. However, when they learned that the building would be destroyed by a fire, they knew nothing would ever be the same.
Motive still unknown
The Daily Beast reported a month after the explosion that investigators found white supremacist literature in Morrow’s apartment, but the man who was home-schooled and attended a Christian college in Florida may have taken his reasons for his actions to the grave with him.
“I wish we knew what his plans were with his motive,” said Beaver Dam Police Chief John Kreuziger. “It would be nice to get some closure.”
There hasn’t been any new information since right after the explosion, Kreuziger said.
Law enforcement knew almost right away that it was nothing that they had seen before, Kreuziger said. The area of evacuation got bigger as they learned more about what was in apartment 11.
“We closed the case, but it is not really closed because we’ll always want those answers,” Kreuziger said. “We may never get them.”
Morrow did not have anything written down, but the items in his apartment included guns, ammunition, a ballistic helmet and suit. Kreuziger said no one would buy all those things without planning to use them.
Morrow did not appear to have any enemies and was liked by many people as well, Kreuziger said.
“It’s lucky all the other chemicals he had in his apartment didn’t blow up that day,” Kreuziger said. “If they all blew up at one time, we would have had a very serious problem.”
The impact Morrow had on the community extended well beyond the apartment building where he lived.
“This was a life-changing experience for a lot of people — not only the people who lost their property and the person who lost his life through his own doing,” Beaver Dam Fire Chief Alan Mannel said.
Mannel said he is proud of how the incident was handled.
“The city, county, state and feds came together to create a solution that didn’t lead to any more injury or loss of life,” Mannel said.
Over the last year, Mannel said he has given presentations in Wisconsin and Illinois to talk about what he learned from the explosion and its aftermath.
Mannel said he first thought the blast could’ve been caused by natural gas, but he said it didn’t take long for Beaver Dam fire officials to rule out both gas and drug production as cause of the explosion.
“At a closer look, it did not add up right,” Mannel said. “You can’t judge a book by the cover. Most occupancies where drugs are involved are disheveled and not well-kept. This guy had a well-kept apartment (except for) the damage of the explosion.”
Mannel said a small dorm refrigerator filled with beakers of liquid raised more questions.
“We backed out of the apartment to preserve the crime scene,” Mannel said.
The fire department wasn’t done, of course. Mannel said they evacuated 228 people from the area.
“John (Kreuziger) and I talked at midnight the first night and I told him I didn’t know what we’d do,” Mannel said. “We were really concerned that we’d get enough help to deal with this.”
The next day, Mannel said they were pleasantly surprised to see a room full of state and federal specialists.
Kreuziger said Dodge County Emergency Management Director Amy Nehls helped find resources from throughout the country to help in Beaver Dam.
“The world’s bomb experts were focused on Beaver Dam and all these people were telling us that we had a big problem,” Mannel said.
Mannel said they were told that something similar had happened only once before and the only way to safely secure the area was to burn the building down. That’s what officials ultimately decided to do with the Knaup Drive building.
In a little over 2 hours on March 15, the structure was burned to rubble and officials determined the chemicals no longer posed a risk.
“After the fire happened, we got a few things back, but we also knew that now we could start going forward,” Hagen said.
Community, residents rally
The community support meant a lot, Hagen said. More than $50,000 was raised and divided between the residents in the 15 other apartment units in the destroyed building.
“All the prayers and the outpouring of thoughts, that was ongoing,” Hagen said. “The support we got that was amazing.”
“What amazed me was how the community came together,” Kreuziger said.
Hagen returned to Village Glen. The management helped them find apartments in their buildings for those who lived at 109 Knaup Drive. Two others returned to Village Glen as well. Another household went to the Stoneridge apartments in Beaver Dam. Hagen said a few went to live with family or friends, while others moved to other apartments out of the area, and one couple bought a house.
Hagen said she was offered an apartment and wanted to return.
“I like it here,” Hagen said. “It feels like home. I was told when they rebuilt we’d have the first chance to move into the building.”
William Graper, of WG Management, which owns the complex, said construction on a new 109 Knaup Drive apartment building could begin May 1.
Hagen said she moved in with a few items and had a difficult time shopping to buy new things.
“All we wanted was our old familiar,” Hagen said. “It was overwhelming.”
Some items, including photos and important papers, were returned to the residents.
Hagen said a member of the FBI told residents it was a miracle the explosion didn’t cause the rest of the chemicals to explode.
“The FBI said we could easily have been killed,” Hagen said. “I’m very grateful and thankful.”