by Dennis Dalman
Investigators are marshalling forces, trying to determine what caused an explosion that killed one employee and injured five others on Memorial Day at the Verso paper mill in Sartell.
Jon Michael Maus, 50, of Albany, died in the explosion. Five other employees were injured. Four of them were treated and released from the St. Cloud Hospital. A fifth, whose injuries were apparently minor, declined treatment.
Gartland and other city officials presented updates at the Tuesday, May 29 Sartell City Council meeting.
Mayor Joe Perske opened the meeting with an expression of sadness about the death of Maus. Others in the council chamber concurred about what an awful tragedy it was. Maus and his wife have four children.
Friends described him as extremely hard-working, trustworthy and good-natured. In a tragic irony, Maus had returned just two weeks ago to work at Verso after being laid-off last year.
On Tuesday afternoon, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton came to assess the damage. During a brief press conference at city hall, he vowed the state would help Verso and Sartell recover from the disaster. His promise of help was a big morale booster for Verso and the city, council members agreed.
Sartell is a city whose officials and residents are still stunned by the shock of what happened that Memorial Day morning. The sound of an explosion rocked the City of Sartell at 11:18 a.m. Residents in Sartell then looked up to see an inky-black plume of smoke rising into the sky on a bright-blue, breezy Memorial Day morning. The smoke could be seen for miles.
A paper-storage warehouse at the plant had exploded, blowing out the east wall and flinging chunks and bits of debris as far as three blocks from the blast. The warehouse, about 200 yards in length, is used to store giant rolls of quality paper. It is located right next to the railroad tracks that run north-south past the paper mill.
Sixteen area fire departments rushed to the scene to help battle the blaze. Nearby residents were told to say inside their houses, just in case any smoke fumes might be toxic. At this point, there appears to have been no chemical toxins released.
At the time of the incident, 50 employees were working in the plant.
As of Newsleader press time Wednesday morning, the explosion is believed to have been caused by an air-compressor tank. The massive fire – the biggest in Sartell’s history – began to consume the many giant rolls of paper, making the fire extremely difficult to fight. Another problem is that Sartell Fire Chief Ken Heim and other firefighting experts feared the warehouse had been rendered structurally unsound because of the blast. Yet another factor was the difficulty of reaching the worst area in the warehouse – the center of it. The north and south ends were not damaged as badly. On Wednesday, experts were taking air samples at both ends of the building because another concern was the air might not be safe for firefighters to breathe.
Within the first hours, firefighters managed to squelch about 95 percent of the fire. A state patrol helicopter dumped repeated loads of river water on the blaze. But the fire continued to smolder among the rolls of paper, and the facility had to be monitored carefully throughout the night and into the next day. Wisps of smoke continued to rise from the building, and an acrid smoky smell lingered over the east side of Sartell for several days.
About 50 employees were working at Verso at the time of the explosion.
As tragic as the incident was, there was much to be grateful for – most especially how so many forces in Sartell and surrounding areas instantly rallied and rushed to the scene.
At the May 29 city council meeting, council members lavished kudos on those who helped, and they marveled at how seamlessly the emergency response happened.
Besides the many fire departments who helped, there were also police officers from area cities eager to lend a hand. Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes took on the duties of an emergency-response coordinator, and assistant police chief Dale Struffert filled in as temporary chief. Police reserve officers were also a big help, directing traffic and performing other duties.
Sartell City Hall had become a kind of secondary command center as Sartell Administrator Patti Gartland fielded a huge number of questions and requests, most of them from media far and wide.
All of Sartell city staff became involved in one way or another in helping out in the aftermath. The Public Works Department, led by Brad Borders, set up barricades and manned the city’s water plants. The explosion had crippled Verso’s water supply, and firefighters quickly hooked up to the city’s water supply. Borders told the city council the disaster required up to three million gallons of water. It is fortunate, Borders said, this spring has been so rainy and wet as Sartell residents used far less water on lawns than is typical this time of year. That meant the city had plenty of water on hand for the Verso crisis.
Another factor that impressed city officials is the overwhelming and generous responses from so many people, organizations and businesses. The American Red Cross appeared immediately to feed the dozens of firefighters. Sam’s Club and Walmart provided an enormous amount of free food. Offers of help poured in from residents, service clubs and business people.
Mayors from neighboring cities also called, asking how they could be of help.
Assistant Sartell Fire Chief Jerry Raymond also addressed the Sartell City Council at its Tuesday meeting.
The smoldering fire, he said, should be completely contained and eradicated within two days or, at a maximum, five days. Raymond said he was happy at how quickly the firefighters managed to put a “stop-loss” to the fire, which means it was contained and prevented from causing any more damage that it already had.
Safety of firefighters was paramount to making any decisions, Raymond emphasized, adding if it takes days to completely eliminate the smoldering mess, that is far preferable to risking the lives of firefighters in an unsound structure.
Gartland said she was amazed by how well professionals did their duty and how their trained expertise paid off.
“Of course, that (fire disaster) is not something we want,” she told the council, “but it was heartening to see all of their skills put to the test. And I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, thank goodness they’re here.’”
Mayor Perske called Memorial Day “almost surreal.” He and other city officials had just attended a Memorial Day ceremony in Veterans’ Park, right across the river from the Verso plant. Little did Perske or anyone else at the ceremony know Verso was about to erupt in a black plume of smoke shortly after the ceremony.
“It was a tragedy, but we minimized that tragedy,” said Perske in thanking all who helped out so selflessly.
Council members echoed Perske’s praises. Member Sarah Jane Nicoll, whose husband is a Sartell volunteer firefighter, said she was so impressed and thankful for the Red Cross, Sam’s Club and Walmart. She also lauded the staff at Sartell City Hall, and the hard work and long hours put in by Borders and the Public Works Department.
Council member Steve Hennes expressed his condolences to Jon Michael Maus and his grieving loved ones, as well as to Verso employees. Then he praised all who helped so professionally.
“I’m glad I live here,” said Hennes, with pride in his voice.
Council members David Peterson and Sandra Cordie also expressed pride and gratitude.
“I’m glad I live in a community like this,” Peterson said.
Past and Future
The Verso paper mill, a bedrock of Sartell for more than 100 years, has gone through many changes throughout the decades. It started as The Watab Pulp and Paper Co., then it became the St. Regis Paper Co. and still later Champion, International Paper and then Verso.
Verso is headquartered in Tennessee and has two other Verso plants, one in Michigan, the other in Maine. All plants are well-known for producing high-quality paper, mainly used in magazines and brochures.
Last year, because of an international decline in demand for such paper, Verso laid off 175 employees and shut down one of its giant paper-producing machines. At one time, about 500 employees worked at Verso. Now that number is about half.
Verso is Sartell’s second-largest employer and the city’s biggest taxpayer.
Once the warehouse disaster is resolved, Verso hopes to continue full production in the very near future.