by Dennis Dalman
Ten years after the catastrophic explosion and fire at the Verso Paper Mill in Sartell, it will soon be a day for public reminiscence.
From 1-4 p.m. Saturday, June 11, there will be a “Verso Paper Corporation Mill Remembrance” at the Sartell Community Center. The event is a joint presentation by the Sartell Historical Society and the Sartell Senior Connection. Former paper-mill employees and the general public are welcome to attend the free day of remembrance. It will take place right after the Grand Parade of the annual Sartell SummerFest that day.
Activities will include a video presentation about the paper mill, a panel discussion with former mill employees, a model-train display by Sartell resident Ron Euteneuer, a sale of books written by local authors and a display of artifacts from the collections of the Sartell Historical Society and the Benton County Historical Society. Refreshments will be served.
On a sunny morning on May 28, 2012, a Memorial Day ceremony in Sartell’s Veterans Park took place just across the river from the paper mill. Shortly after the ceremony, the people dispersed from the park. The sky began to cloud over when a loud explosion was heard throughout the city. Within minutes sirens could be heard screaming as fire-fighting crews from throughout the area arrived at the paper-mill site.
An overheated air compressor had exploded, causing a rapidly spreading fire. In an effort to extinguish the first flames, an employee, Jon Maus of Albany, was killed when the compressor blew up. Four other employees were injured.
That day, May 28, was the most traumatic day in Sartell’s history. The paper mill, which first opened in 1905, flourished for 107 years under various ownership names: Watab Pulp and Paper, St. Regis, Champion International, Verso. The plant was the largest employer in the city, with almost 500 employees in its peak-production years producing 850 tons of high-quality coated paper every 24 hours. The mill was also a bedrock contributor to Sartell’s tax base.
The fire at the mill was a massive, very difficult fire to fight; it took mutual-aid fire departments days to extinguish flames and hot spots completely.
It was later determined the tragedy began when an employee had discovered a leaking water valve, causing the paper-making machine to be shut down for repairs. The air compressor, which should have shut down, kept running and due to lack of water to cool it, it became extremely hot to the point that it exploded. The Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Division, after an investigation, cited and fined Verso for two serious safety violations.
Just as traumatic as the fire was an announcement about two months later. On Aug. 2, 2012, the Verso parent company in Memphis, Tenn. announced the mill would be closed permanently. That news set off a wave of disappointment and actual mourning among so many people.
Then and now, many Sartell residents and former employees wax nostalgic about the historic paper mill, which provided good-paying jobs for employees and their families for so many decades.
Some years later, a visual history installation was created in Veterans Park so visitors can learn how and why that paper mill was such a vital part of Sartell and the surrounding area.
In March 2013, AIM Development, based in Montreal, Canada, purchased the mill for $12.5 million. That company then began the long process of salvaging and recycling a huge amount of metal and other materials from the abandoned plant.
Currently, the site remains undeveloped, although several plans and ideas have been proposed throughout the years.