Authorities are seeking answers after an explosion rocked a century-old paper mill in central Minnesota this week, leaving one worker dead, the facility precarious, and a major local employer in jeopardy.
The Memorial Day blast at Verso Paper Mill triggered a blaze that drew about 20 police, fire and emergency response agencies to Sartell, MN, north of St. Cloud on the east bank of the Mississippi River.
Minnesota Public Radio
|Firefighters worked at the scene of Monday’s fire into Thursday. Initial reports said an air compressor may have exploded, igniting the deadly blaze.|
Employee Jon Michael Maus, 50, a married father of four, perished in the fire. Four other employees were treated at area hospitals and released.
About 100 employees were working at the time of the blast, officials said.
‘A Very Sad Day’
“This is a very sad day for Verso and the Verso family,” plant manager Matt Archambeau told reporters. “Obviously, our first priority is the safety and welfare of the Verso family, and we’ve got a lot of folks in there working right now to ensure that.”
Hazmat teams found no release of hazardous materials and were monitoring the scene, Heim said.
While Archambeau said the cause of the accident remained “very much unknown,” initial speculation focused on the explosion of an air compressor.
The explosion occurred at 11:30 a.m. on Monday (May 28) in the center of the facility’s warehouse area, and firefighters continued to fight the last of the stubborn blaze into Thursday.
Flare-ups and hotspots remained a threat, fueled by the facility’s nearly 4,000 rolls of coated paper and a rubberized roof membrane that carried the fire, Fire Chief Ken Heim said at a news conference.
The building remained “very unstable” throughout the week, with structural beams lying across massive paper rolls and cores of tightly wrapped coated paper smoldering, Heim said.
“The challenge you have with a paper roll is they’re wound so tight,” said Heim. “And as the first layer burns off, it ignites. ... It’s very challenging to put out.”
Each paper roll weighs hundreds of pounds, and authorities were working with a structural engineer on how to remove the material from the warehouse, so firefighters could attack the fire from inside the plant, city officials said.
Firefighters tried unsuccessfully to get into the facility through the roof, Heim said, and news footage showed fire crews dousing the blaze from cherry pickers.
Heim said his team was considering filling Dumpsters with water and immersing each roll of paper from the facility, to knock down any remaining hidden hot spots.
By Wednesday, the fire was 99 percent contained, but fire crews remained into Thursday, tamping down the last hot spots.
“We have a massive challenge ahead of us,” Heim said.
Firefighting is not the only challenge. The 105-year-old plant—older than the town itself—laid off 175 workers in December, sparing about 250 for a sharply reduced operation in the town of 16,000.
“They were our second-largest employer,” Sartell City Manager Patti Gartland told Minnesota Public Radio. “They were and continue to be our largest tax-paying property owner. So they have a very significant economic, social and cultural role in our community.”
Gov. Mark Dayton visited the site on Tuesday and pledged his support for the company,
But neither he, nor the generations who have worked for the plant, nor the company itself know what is ahead.
Said Archambeau: “We don’t have a plan beyond today.”