Fatal Sartell paper mill fire has major impact on city

11:03 PM, May 28, 2012   |    comments
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SARTELL, Minn. -- One person is dead and five others have been injured after an explosion in the Verso Paper mill Monday morning.

The explosion could be felt or heard throughout parts of the city of Sartell.

"It almost felt like the whole house just moved," said Stephanie Neuman who lives right next to the plant with her husband, Justin and their two children. "We both looked at each other and said what just happened."

Officials say the explosion happened shortly before 11:30 a.m., which Neuman says felt like an earthquake. Their front porch window was blown out.

"It literally felt like something landed on our house because everything just shook and made a loud noise," said Justin Neuman.

They were unscathed; unfortunately that was not the case for employees inside the plant.

"Our hearts go out to the family of one of our team members today," said Matt Archambeau, a Verso spokesperson.

He confirmed one employee died in the blast, but would not release the person's identity pending family notification.

Five others were injured and taken to area hospitals. Officials, however, would not say how serious the injuries were.

A total of 50 employees were working at the time of the explosion. 

A cause is still unknown. "At this point, all we know we had a significant event in the facility and the cause is still very much unknown," said Archambeau.

Crews fought the fire from the air and ground, calling in 14 other area departments to help.

The blaze is believed to have started in the older part of the mill where large paper rolls are stored. It's those rolls that are helping fuel the fire, causing parts of the roof to collapse, said Sartell's fire chief.

"We made substantial progress but the challenge we've had is the building is very unstable at this point," said Chief Ken Heim.

Heim and his crews are consulting with a structural engineer. They have not been able to attack the fire from the inside, but he says the fire is 90 percent contained.

"The tragedy, the loss of life, it just hits us hard," said Mayor Joe Perske.

Perske says the town was just getting over layoffs at the paper mill late last year when Verso let more than 150 employees go.

He and others wondered what this fire would mean to the city. "The mill has provided house payments, car payments, sent kids to college. We need this mill," he said.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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