Future of Sartell, Minn., paper mill unclear after massive blaze
SARTELL (AP) -- The future of a paper mill that's one of the main employers and taxpayers in the central Minnesota town of Sartell was unclear Tuesday as firefighters spent a second day trying to extinguish a fire that killed one worker and injured four.
The fire broke out Monday with an explosion in a warehouse at the Verso Paper Corp. mill. The warehouse held nearly 4,000 rolls of paper, each weighing hundreds of pounds. Firefighters still were trying to get to the burning rolls at the back of the building Tuesday.
The building was unstable and structural beams were resting on top of paper rolls, Fire Chief Ken Heim said. "We have a massive challenge ahead of us," Heim said during a news conference.
However, Heim also said he didn't think the rest of the plant was damaged, the St. Cloud Times reported.
Plant manager Matt Archambeau said about 100 people were at work Tuesday, compared with 150 for a normal weekday and 50 when the fire broke out on the Memorial Day holiday. He said he didn't know what the future holds for them, and the company is taking it day by day.
"We don't have a plan beyond today," he said.
The sprawling blue mill is a landmark along the east bank of the Mississippi River in Sartell, a community of about 16,000 people just north of St. Cloud. The mill's smokestack can be spotted for miles. It has been producing paper for 105 years, about as long as Sartell has been a city. It's a top employer and the city's highest property taxpayer.
But Memphis, Tenn.-based Verso Paper has been hurt by the economic slump and a declining market for some of its products, including newsprint. The company laid off 175 plant employees and mothballed two of its three paper-making machines late last year. The remaining machine makes lightweight coated paper, accounting for about two-thirds of the plant's annual business. The paper is used mainly in media and marketing, including magazines and catalogs.
"When something happens to the mill, it affects the whole city," Mayor Joe Perske said.
Verso's chief financial officer, Robert Mundy, told the Times it's fortunate that there was a "significant firewall" between the machine and the warehouse.
"The first thing we'll have to do is get in and assess the damage, but we don't know when that will be," he said. "If it's limited to the warehouse, we should be able to bring back operations in a reasonable amount of time."
The plant is so important to the area that Gov. Mark Dayton scheduled a trip to the site for Tuesday afternoon. He planned to fly around the plant and meet with state and local officials, emergency management personnel and company representatives.
The fire killed Jon Michael Maus, 50, of Albany. He was survived by his wife, Lucy, and four children.
The number of people injured in the blaze was reduced to four Tuesday because one person refused treatment, Archambeau said. The four were treated and released from St. Cloud Hospital.
The cause remained under investigation Tuesday. Heim said there were "possible indications" of an air compressor explosion.
The fire chief said he hoped that crews could get inside the building and start removing paper rolls Tuesday. The plan was to take the rolls and submerge them in large trash bins filled with water, he said.