St. Charles evacuation order lifted

Flames
Flames can be seen coming through the roof of the North Star Foods plant in St. Charles, Minn. Friday afternoon.
Photo courtesy of KAAL-TV, Austin

Residents began trickling back into the southeastern Minnesota town Saturday morning, after city officials lifted an evacuation order prompted by a large fire at a local meat-processing plant.

The town of 3,600 was evacuated Friday afternoon because the fire at North Star Foods threatened a number of anhydrous ammonia tanks inside.

City officials reopened two local highways Saturday at 10:30 a.m., 90 minutes earlier than originally planned.

"From an environmental and safety standpoint, air-quality levels remain acceptable and are also being monitored," City Administrator Nick Koverman said.

Authorities carefully inspected the ammonia tanks and deemed them safe, Koverman said.

"Currently we've reviewed all the safety valves and vessels with those containers and they appear structurally sound," he said.

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Within half an hour of being allowed home, about a dozen people wandered toward the charred remains of the North Star Foods Inc. plant. The structure remained standing but about 75 percent appeared substantially damaged.

Daniel Rojas, 27, stood outside the plant with his wife and 2-year-old son, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the damage.

"I'm sad. I've worked here all my life almost," said Rojas, a quality-control worker who had been at the plant for about 10 years.

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Fire crews remained on site to take care of a number of still-smoldering areas, Koverman said.

The state fire marshal's office is investigating the cause of the blaze.

North Star Foods plant manager Mark Eads said the fire started late Friday morning above one of the ovens where chickens are cooked.

"Within two to three minutes, there was smoke coming out of the room pretty heavy," Eads said. Carolyn Nicklay, who works in human resources for the company, said she called 911 and firefighters quickly arrived.

"Everybody's out. Everybody's OK. That's all that matters," she said.

Smoke from the fire could be seen 10 miles away by late morning, and by late afternoon three tornado-like clouds of gray smoke were visible from five miles away. Winona County Deputy Rod Hansen said that by nightfall the flames were no longer visible outside the plant.

North Star Foods is the second-largest employer in St. Charles with about 150 workers. One employee estimated between 50 and 100 people were working at the time of the evacuation.

Harry Zeitler, 46, worked at the plant for 29 years. The shipping and receiving supervisor was working in a front office when he heard about the fire, and began rounding up co-workers and moving them outside. He assumed the office area was far enough from the fire that it would be spared, but was "shocked" Saturday to learn the area was also destroyed.

"I'm sad. I've worked here all my life almost."

"I hope they rebuild, but that's preliminary. Who knows what's going to go on," he said, shaking his head. "It's going to be a big cleanup."

Civil defense sirens blared to warn residents to get out. Sheriff's deputies began door-to-door evacuations of people and pets about 3:30 p.m., and evacuation centers were set up for displaced residents at a church and schools in nearby communities. Both major highways through town were closed.

Koverman thanked public safety officials and the residents of St. Charles on Saturday for an orderly evacuation.

"Without everyone's participation and cooperation it might not have gone as smoothly as it did," he said.

The only reported injuries were minor. One state trooper had some minor lung irritation and a firefighter got a small cut, while some residents sought treatment for minor eye irritation.

Locally owned North Star Foods Inc. has been in business since 1971, serving industrial, retail and foodservice customers, according to its Web site. Its products include chicken, turkey, beef, pork and other food products. --- (Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)