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Top honor for New London, Minn., fire official

WILLMAR — Deputy State Fire Marshal and Investigator John Steinbach has been named the 2012 fire investigator of the year by the Minnesota Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators.

The award will be presented to Steinbach today at the association’s conference in St. Cloud. The organization presents annual awards for the investigator, team and prosecutor of the year.

Steinbach, who has been a fire marshal and investigator for 16 years, was nominated, in part, for his work as the lead state investigator into the May 2012 Verso Paper mill fire in Sartell. The incident claimed the life of one mill worker, Jon Maus, 51, of Albany, and injured five other workers. The plant, which employed 260 people, was ultimately closed.

The blaze burned for several days and a total of 92 fire departments, summoned by a statewide mutual aid call, battled the fire with millions of gallons of water. Steinbach and the team of investigators determined that a lack of water flow to an air compressor caused the compressor to overheat and start on fire, which caused an explosion of an air tank and resulted in the paper-fueled fire.

 “I am humbled and very honored,” Steinbach said regarding the award. “I don’t think that I went above and beyond the call of duty.”

Steinbach said the paper mill investigation was “the biggest investigation of my career” and that it was a team effort by himself and three other state investigators, Casey Stotts, Steve Kellen and Jim Iammatteo. Steinbach, who is assigned to eight counties from Kandiyohi County east to Anoka County, worked on the investigation for a month.

“There was a lot of other people who worked very hard on this (investigation),” Steinbach said, noting that fire response is always a team effort, from the fire department, law enforcement, investigators and prosecution.

Steinbach was nominated by Brian Haag, a private fire investigator for Whitemore Fire Consultants of Prior Lake. Haag was the lead investigator of the blaze for the paper mill company.

Along with tipping his hat to Haag for his work on the investigation, Steinbach gave a nod to Jim Rieland, the local fire marshal in Sartell; Rick Kleis, the state’s chief fire investigator and Steinbach’s supervisor; and the 50 to 100 private fire investigators who worked on the Verso paper incident and the many fire departments who responded to fight the blaze.

Steinbach, of New London, was a volunteer firefighter for 18 years before he became a fire marshal and investigator. He describes his work as “rewarding and very challenging” in that he must figure out where and why a fire started to provide answers, especially when a fire claims a life.

Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

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