by Dennis Dalman and
At first Stacey Duane assumed the big boom she heard must be a Memorial Day gun salute echoing from a Sartell cemetery or park.
The time was about 11:20 a.m. Monday morning. Duane, who lives in Evergreen Village, was visiting a next-door neighbor, Rita Heinen. They were sitting on her cement patio with another neighbor, Pete Weisenberg.
Then they heard the noise.
“The house just shook,” Duane said. “It was an unusual sound – that boom. It seemed to echo from the southeast air.”
Weisenberg decided to head toward Highway 15 to see what in the world had made such a noise.
The two women also walked into Val Smith Park, which is adjacent to Evergreen Village. It was then they turned, looked up and saw a huge dark black plume of smoke roiling up into the sky. It was then they knew something catastrophic had happened at the Verso plant, just a few blocks to the west. Soon, they heard shrieking sirens and the pulsating whir of a helicopter. The ominous-looking smoke and the siren sounds were alarming.
“It all scared the living daylights out of us,” Heinen said.
The park manager told the three friends to stay in the house, just to be on the safe side.
At the same time, across the Mississippi River in West Sartell, Charity Hendricks was inside her home at Hillside Apartments, just across from Sartell Middle School and about eight blocks from the Verso plant.
At 11:20 a.m. she heard a loud boom.
“At first I thought it was loud thunder,” she said.
Then Hendricks’ boyfriend called and told her he’d heard a flash-news bulletin on the radio – something about an explosion at the Sartell paper mill. Looking up at the sky, Hendricks and her young daughter, Brisa, saw thick black smoke rising in the southeast. Loud sirens began. Police appeared on the street urging residents to get back inside their apartments.
Hendricks became concerned by the acrid smell of the smoke in the air.
“I didn’t know if the fire was chemical or not,” she said. “It just wasn’t a natural fire smell. And I was concerned about maybe the whole paper plant going up in flames or another explosion.”
As concerned as she was, Hendricks noticed Brisa was not only not scared, she was fascinated by the smoke, the noise, the commotion, the sirens and the helicopter that suddenly appeared, as if by magic, in the sky overhead.
“I never thought anything like this would ever happen,” Hendricks said.
Like all people in Sartell that Memorial Day morning, a loud boom heard by Hendricks, Duane, Heinen and Weisenberg had quickly turned into a major disaster, practically right in their backyards.