by Dennis Dalman
Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes was up in Grand Rapids, enjoying a vacation with his family, when he got the emergency message: an explosion-fire at the Verso Paper Co. back home.
He immediately jumped in the car for the long, nerve-wracking, suspenseful ride home. It wasn’t until he reached Bemidji he could tune into radio reports about the disaster. Fearing the worst, he didn’t know quite what he would face, once back home.
Hughes shared his thoughts, feelings and insights about the Verso disaster with members of the Sartell Senior Correction during its weekly “Coffee and Conversation” gathering at Country Manor.
Hughes preceded his talk by playing actual 911 tapes of that morning, Memorial Day May 28. The callers mentioned how their houses or apartments shook and how they saw plumes of smoke boiling up into the sky.
Hughes shared certain facts that had not been widely disseminated earlier.
For example, all train traffic had to be stopped for six hours, and trains were backed up as far away as Wisconsin. The stoppage had at least a potential effect of costing Burlington-Northern up to $500,000 per hour in lost income. Finally, accommodations were made to let trains, including an AmTrak train, pass through. Hughes said he couldn’t help but imagine the stunned looks on the AmTrak passengers as they looked out train windows to see arcs of water shooting over their train and chunks of debris and twisted beams everywhere, as if they were being led directly into a war zone.
When the explosion happened, almost all internal power was lost in the Verso plant, which caused all kinds of complications, including the communications network. Fortunately, Hughes said, the Verso workers that day knew they should leave the plant immediately.
A “silver lining” is the explosion happened on Memorial Day when there weren’t as many workers at the plant. Above the exploded area was a suite of offices. On that holiday, nobody was working in those offices. That was a lucky break, Hughes said, because that office space was all destroyed in the explosion-fire.
The Verso tragedy was very difficult for a number of reasons. For one thing, emergency responders, including the police, did not know if there were chemical hazards, but a hazardous-materials team was called just in case. For another thing, the fire was extremely difficult to fight, mainly because of the thousands of smoldering giant paper bales stacked up and in the way of firefighters. That drawback was good, in a way, because the tall stacks of bales prevented the demolished roof from crashing all the way to the ground, Hughes noted. Another difficulty is those on the scene had no idea if there would be yet another explosion. There were many secondary explosions heard that morning, but they turned out to be smaller propane tanks that exploded, fortunately not injuring anyone. Yet another reason the fire was hard to fight is because outside water sources had to be used, and it was almost impossible to get that water acoss the distance to the plant.
Another frightful moment happened when emergency personnel spotted a man on the roof. One Verso employee had been stranded on the roof, where he had gone following the explosion. Happily, rescue workers got him down to safety.
In the middle of the pandemonium, the skies turned dark with an imminent storm as 14 mutual-aid fire departments screamed to the scene.
“Oh, this is all we need,” Hughes said to himself, looking up at the threatening sky.
As Sartell’s emergency-management director, Hughes knew he had his hands full. As always happens during a disaster, rumors and speculations abounded. Was the bridge damaged? Is the air poisonous? Are there chemicals in the river? How many lost their lives? It was difficult to get iron-clad accurate information to share with all the people clambering for it. Fortunately, Sartell City Administrator Patti Gartland put on her other “hat” — that of public-information director — and, sifting carefully and quickly through reports from the scene, Gartland was able to share that information with the media through a series of press conferences. Such timely information helped to keep people cooler and calmer. Gartland’s job was complicated by the Data Privacy Act under which it is illegal to disseminate certain kinds of information. Gartland consulted with the city attorney several times throughout those days about data privacy.
What didn’t occur to Hughes and others because of all the pandemoniun is how they could have used the city’s cable-access channel, the city’s website and the police department’s Facebook page as communications devices.
“It just never occurred to us,” Hughes said.
One good thing was Hughes managed to get, rather quickly, a supply of radios that could be programmed to the same frequency for communications among the emergency personnel. Dozens of radios are stored in central Minnesota just in case of such a disaster.
The American Red Cross was a huge help at the scene, along with all of the many area businesses who donated food of every description. In a lighter mode, Hughes quipped, “I ate so well that week! There was an endless supply of every kind of food imaginable.”
Disasters are often teaching opportunities. One of Hughes’ top goals is to help initiate a consistent reporting procedure for all agencies at a big emergency. For example, the firefighters used various notebooks, like yellow legal pads, to jot down lists of equipment and other factual information. Emergency management, on the other hand, has standard, consistent forms with boxes to check off when taking notes. The haphazard, inconsistent note-taking caused more than a little confusion.
When asked what crossed his mind as he finally drifted off to sleep after so many exhausting hours on the scene, Hughes said, with a chuckle, that he thought how nice it would be if everybody at the Verso disaster all had the same kind of paper forms.