Don Allen leaned against the guard rails of a bridge, his eyes shaded from the sun by the brim of his hat.
A fire truck rolled by and shook the bridge as it passed, but Allen seemed off in his own world Thursday as he watched fire crews continue to douse parts of the Verso Paper Mill. A fire on Monday that shut down the mill is nearly contained, but its future is uncertain.
Meanwhile, the more than 250 people employed by the central Minnesota plant have their lives on hold.
Allen, who worked in the mill for 30 years, turning wood chips into pulp that would become paper, retired in December, among 175 workers who left the mill. Some were laid off when the Verso Paper Corporation decommissioned two of its paper-making machines. But the mill remained a mainstay for the town of about 15,000.
Looking at the damage for the first time, Allen couldn't help but worry.
"It's tragic," he said of the fire. "Talking to friends that still work there, it scares them because they figure they may not rebuild. The general attitude is that they've been looking for an excuse to shut the mill down."
Allen, who enjoyed his time at the mill, hopes company officials keep the plant going. The work was hot, but the pay and benefits were good. In recent years, changing times — and a decreasing reliance on paper — have taken its toll on the plant, which has long made paper used in magazines, marketing products, catalogs and other printed products.
"We kinda had to change the kinds of paper the last couple of years," Allen said. "Before I retired even, they would take any [work] ... they could get, just to fill up the machine time. I do think the best days are behind them. They were even before the fire because paper usage is shrinking as more people go electronic."
It's not easy to separate the history of Sartell from the mill.
There wasn't much to Sartell before construction on the mill began, said Sarah Warmka, an archivist with the Stearns History Museum in nearby St. Cloud.
"When you think of Sartell you think of the mill," Warmka said. "When you think of the paper mill you think of Sartell. They go hand and hand."
The town was incorporated in 1907, a year after the mill began operating.
"So many people worked there," Warmka said. "It was one of the largest employers and tax payers throughout the history of the town."
"IT'S BEEN A GOOD NEIGHBOR"
One of Sartell's older neighborhoods lies across the road from the paper mill. It's a place many former employees now live.
From the deck of their house of more than 35 years, Larry and Paulette Levasseur can see the mill and the damage from the fire.
"I hope they rebuild it," said Larry Levasseur, who worked on and off at the mill for years before suffering a stroke. "It's a bad place to lose it ... I'd hate to see anything happen to the dang thing."
His wife is concerned that if Sartell loses the plant — the city's largest taxpayer — that could affect their property taxes. She also worries about the jobs that could permanently be lost.
Paulette Levasseur said everyone in Sartell knows someone who works at the mill, and it's been that way for years.
"It's been a good neighbor," she said of the plant so close it is one of their last views of the day. "It's been my sunset."
Gesturing towards the mill, she said she's finds it strange to see it sit idle, and quiet.
"It was pitch black last night for the first time," she said. "Otherwise they had it all lit up every night ... It was different."
Officials say the fire is 99 percent out. As they become more confident there won't be flare ups, fire officials will turn the mill back over to its owners. However fire crews will remain on the scene for the foreseeable future.