The bonfire explosion in Pulaski followed by overwhelming community support


The blaze “sounded like a bomb” the night a partially fuel-filled drum was thrown into a bonfire at a home near Pulaski, injuring dozens of partygoers, Julie Nelson said, describing what her son Isaac told her .

“And then[Isaac]looked around and there was fire at kids everywhere and everyone just started screaming and running.”

Other witnesses described people catching fire and rolling on the ground as bystanders tried to douse the flames with their sweatshirts.

Isaac Nelson, a recent graduate of Pulaski High School, was one of at least 17 people who sought hospital treatment after the blast on the night of Oct. 14, although authorities estimate as many as 40 may have been injured. Julie Nelson said he was still being treated at a Milwaukee hospital Friday for severe burns to his hands and body.

The entire community of Pulaski, a city of about 3,500 people, felt the impact of that night and received attention from state and national media, including the Washington Post.

The ongoing investigation is still clarifying exactly what happened. But while local authorities seek answers, community members are seeking — and finding — ways to help.

More:“These children burned”: Current, former Pulaski students among “many” injured at the campfire, according to reports

More:How did a barrel of gasoline get near a campfire in the Pulaski area? What we know so far about the blast that injured dozens

Small businesses, other students, and individuals set up fundraisers and help in other ways

When reports of the blast first came out, Hobart’s photographer, Mallory Kinchen, wanted to do something to help the victims’ families. Back then, “there wasn’t a general fund,” she said, “so I took the initiative and set one up.”

Kinchen launched a fundraising website through SpotFund on Oct. 16 to raise money for gas and gift cards. As of Friday afternoon, that fund is over $5,000, more than double its original target of $2,000.

The community reaction is “great to see,” Kinchen said. She also plans to donate a portion of the profits from her photography business to the fund.

The money will help families who must continue to travel to hospitals in Milwaukee and Green Bay, round trips that can take one to four hours from Pulaski, she said. Four people were still hospitalized, some in critical condition, according to a news release Thursday afternoon from the Shawano County Sheriff’s Office.

Kinchen hopes these families, along with everyone else affected by the fire, know “how many people are rallying behind them and wanting to help,” she said.

Businesses in the community have set up donation boxes to help those injured in the burn, and various individuals and groups are also getting involved in other ways to help.

Seniors from the Bonduel football team took t-shirts originally intended to raise money for a party and instead sold them to benefit bonfire victims. The Pulaski Future Farmers of America are donating proceeds from their Haunted Trail event at the Pulaski Middle School Forest this Saturday.

Oak Ridge Counseling & Consulting is donating its services and extending hours for people affected by the blast. “We don’t want (cost) to be a barrier to anyone getting help,” said owner and licensed consultant Abby Huntley.

The Pulaski Community School District also supports the students.

“Immediately after our school district was made aware of the campfire incident in our community, we began work to support the students, families and staff affected by this tragic event,” Superintendent Allison Space said in a prepared statement. These included providing mental health services to students and a list of resources for parents.

While the mood in the district is somber, Space noted that the community has come together with a surge of support.

She said she’s glad the district was able to host the homecoming dance on Saturday to bring students together with teachers and counselors.

“They really needed that,” Space said.

Julie Nelson said she and her family received an “overwhelming” abundance of support: financial help, cards, flowers, food, congratulations.

“Ninety percent of these people we don’t even know,” she said. “It’s just all from the community … it’s remarkable all the love and support that’s coming from everywhere.”

A sign outside St. John Lutheran Church on October 21, 2022 says "Nobody fights alone.  robber strong" several current and former students at Pulaski High School were injured after a campfire explosion.

Counselor: “It affects everyone”, how to proceed

“In a small community, it happens to…everyone,” Kinchen said. Many people in the city “probably know someone who was affected”.

Dealing with events like this as a community can be complicated, Huntley said.

“For some of us, life will move on faster. For others, this will be a long journey,” she said. “Everyone has a different time frame to move forward.”

The feelings and questions that could arise are also different, she said.

“I think it’s very important to remember, as a community, that we’re all human…so have grace, have understanding, and allow everyone to feel what they’re feeling.” She added a caveat: ” But do so respectfully, without pointing fingers and blaming.”

Huntley made suggestions for people who would like to offer support in the days, weeks and months to come.

“Sometimes it’s not even about saying anything. It’s all about being there. It’s, it’s present, it’s saying, ‘Do you want to come over and hang out? We don’t have to do anything. We don’t have to say anything.'”

Whether it’s dropping off a hot meal or sending a cute picture of a puppy, Huntley said what helps is “anything to just show that you’re thinking of them and that you’re there and that there’s no expectation.” “

Meanwhile, Julie Nelson is hoping for Isaac’s recovery and that he will be “on the mend,” she said.

And reflecting on the night of the blast, she said these young adults who helped others put out the fire and transported injured people to hospital were “true heroes.”

“Most of these children are willing to help their friends in need,” Nelson said. “That says a lot about our community and the parents who are raising these children.”

The Pulaski School District has encouraged people who wish to help to call the Pulaski United Foundation at 920-822-6051. Fox Communities Credit Union also established a Pulaski Burn Victims Fund.

More:55-gallon drum of diesel fuel caused campfire explosion west of Pulaski, injuring up to 40 people, Shawano County Sheriff’s Office says

More:At least 17 injured in campfire explosion in Pulaski area, but up to 40 injured, Shawano County Sheriff’s Office says. Police are looking for witnesses

Rebecca Loroff is a Breaking and Trending News reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. Contact her at 920-907-7801 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @RebeccaLoroff.


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