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 – a plant where many St. Joseph residents have worked during the past century.
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.
Maus and his wife, Lucy, 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 at their Tuesday night meeting.
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 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 through 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.
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, including the St. Joseph Fire Department.
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.
All of Sartell City staff became involved in one way or another in helping out in the aftermath.
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.
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.