Memorial Day 2012 in Sartell is a day every resident will likely remember for a long, long time.
To paraphrase novelist Charles Dickens, it was the best of days; it was the worst of days.
May 28 began in Sartell with a moving, well-attended Memorial Day ceremony in Veterans Park. The night before, it had rained cats and dogs, but as the sun rose above the river below the park, the rain-swept morning shimmered in the sunshine as people gathered to pay their respects to all veterans of all wars. It was a glorious morning as guest speakers paid tributes between interludes of scintillating patriotic tunes performed by the Sartell Community Band and the Sartell Community Singers. Shortly after the laying of the wreath, the performing of taps and a gun salute, participants leisurely enjoyed conversation and refreshments. That ceremony was, as it is every year, a perfect microcosm of Sartell and of Americana at its best: cooperation, volunteerism, social engagement and the mutual honoring of cherished traditions.
On that beautiful morning, ceremony visitors could see in the bright sunshine, across the river, the bright baby-blue massive Verso paper mill with its tall stack venting blindingly white cloud-like condensation into the air.
Less than 90 minutes after the end of the ceremony, the impressive sight of the Verso mill suddenly turned dark and ugly. Rocked by an explosion, the plant was suddenly belching ink-black smoke into the sky. It was later learned the explosion happened in a paper-storage warehouse at the plant. Tragically, one employee was killed in the blast. Four others were injured. Fortunately they were all treated at the St. Cloud Hospital and released.
The blast at Verso is still reverberating throughout the Sartell community. For more than a century the Sartell paper mill has been a landmark in the city, as well as an economic bedrock, along with DeZurik Co. Generations of employees worked good-paying jobs at the plant, which changed ownership and names through the years: Watab Pulp and Paper Co., St. Regis Paper Co., Champion, International Paper, Verso.
In recent years, the plant – owned by a parent company in Tennessee – has had to scale back, due to a lessening in demand for the kind of quality paper products it makes, such as glossy magazine paper used worldwide. Its work force in the past year had been cut by 175 workers. At one time, Verso employed about 500. Now there are about half that many.
What Verso contributed to Sartell throughout a century is incalculable – in jobs, taxes and contributions to good causes.
As shocking as the Verso explosion was, there was a silver lining to the tragedy. All of the forces of the city pulled together instantly to deal with the disaster. Those forces included the fire department (and fire departments from other cities), first responders, the police department, Sartell City Hall officials, emergency management and people out on the streets asking if they could be of any help.
We have no doubt Verso – that venerable century-long tradition – will recover and prevail. After all, the community spirit of Sartell has always helped sustain its long string of successes. It’s the same kind of community spirit so evident at the Memorial Day ceremony earlier that morning.
We would like to extend our heartfelt sympathies to the family, friends and colleagues of the man who died in the explosion — Jon Michael Maus, 50, an Albany resident and the father of four children. In the coming days, let’s remember to extend a helping hand to those loved ones.