by Dennis Dalman
All told, personnel from more than 70 fire departments from throughout Minnesota freely gave of their time to help keep a stubborn, nasty fire at the Verso paper mill in Sartell from spreading.
City officials and statewide experts are still trying to assess the damage and are also investigating how such a sudden crisis could have happened — a disaster that killed one employee and wounded four others. At the time, an air compressor was thought to have caused the blast.
It is still not known – as of Newsleader press time June 6 — when Verso will resume full operations, although Gov. Mark Dayton, who visited Sartell twice last week, promised he would do everything possible to secure state aid in helping the company recover as quickly as possible.
All agreed it was a maddeningly difficult fire to fight. The explosion on Memorial Day morning happened in the middle of a vast warehouse where giant paper rolls are stored. The blast blew out the east wall of the building but left the north and south sides relatively undamaged.
The Sartell-St. Stephen Fire Department succeeded in extinguishing most of the blaze and prevented it from spreading further. But firefighting conditions were far from ideal. First of all, it was not known how badly the building was damaged, causing serious safety concerns for firefighters. In addition, because the warehouse contained an estimated 4,000 huge paper rolls, each weighing in excess of a ton, it was virtually impossible to access the most dangerous area of the fire – deep in the interior of the warehouse where there were hot spots and smoldering paper rolls that could virtually explode with flames if exposed to oxygen.
Ever since May 28, when the explosion occurred, fire department personnel and other emergency workers were securing the scene around the clock. The warehouse continued to smolder for days, although by Friday, June 1, firefighters had begun to gain access to the heart of the building. It was a massive undertaking to remove the giant paper rolls.
Experts also concluded the air from the smoldering structure was not toxic to breathe, which was a major concern of Sartell-Le Sauk Police Chief Ken Heim and others, including nearby residents.
Personnel from fire departments far and wide came to Sartell to relieve exhausted firefighters who needed rest and sleep.
The incident is being investigated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office and by the Minnesota Occupational Health and Safety Administration, also known as OSHA. Such investigations are virtually certain after an explosion and fire of such magnitude. Verso officials are also investigating virtually every aspect of safety at the plant. For 11 years, Verso has been a member of MNSTAR, an OSHA program of ongoing health-and-safety maintenance and improvements. Verso has been honored throughout the years for its meticulous attention to safety issues.
Sartell City Administrator Patti Gartland issued periodic Verso updates — at least once daily — in the days following the disaster, keeping the media and residents informed and helping coordinate the intricate connections among all of the agencies and businesses so eager to lend a hand.
Nearly 30 businesses donated beverages, food and other necessities for the firefighters. They included Sam’s Club, Walmart, Coborn’s, Family Dollar Store, Liquid Assets, Westside Liquor, Marnantelli’s Pizza, McDonald’s, Subway at Country Manor, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Walgreens, Country Inn and Suites — all of Sartell. In addition, businesses from other cities also contributed, including St. Joseph Meat Market, Manea’s Meats, Foley Meats, Appert’s Foods, Bernick’s Pepsi, Pan-O-Gold Bakery, Cold Spring Bakery and many more.
Fire-department personnel came from as far away as Watertown, S.D., Excelsior, Kensington, Vadnais Heights and Pine City.
Law enforcement agencies involved included the Sartell Police Department, as well as the police departments of St. Joseph, Sauk Rapids and Waite Park. The sheriff’s departments of Stearns and Benton counties helped out, as well as the Minnesota State Patrol.
Other agencies that assisted included the American Red Cross, Benton County Emergency Management, Stearns County Emergency Management, Gold Cross Ambulance, the City of St. Cloud, Stearns County Emergency Management and the Minnesota Police Chiefs’ FAST team.
Gartland said the Burlington Northern Santa Fe adjusted its train schedules to accommodate the on-site response needs.
Another big help, still ongoing, comes from the Sartell Planning and Community Development Department whose members are meeting with Verso officials to see how it can help them get Verso back on its feet again.
The total cost assessment of the disaster has yet to be determined.