- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

ST. CHARLES, MINN. (AP) - Authorities evacuated this southeastern Minnesota town of about 3,600 Friday afternoon as a large fire at a meat processing plant threatened the anhydrous ammonia tanks inside.

Civil defense sirens blared to warn residents to get out and officials went door-to-door ordering residents to head toward Lewiston, about 10 miles to the east, because of the fire at North Star Foods. Sheriff’s deputies started evacuating people and pets about 3:30 p.m., and evacuation centers were set up for displaced residents.

City Administrator Nick Koverman said there were about 30,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia in the plant. The refrigerant can cause severe burns, particularly to the eyes, throat and lungs.

The cause of the fire wasn’t immediately known, he said, and it wasn’t clear when residents would be allowed to return.

A hazardous materials team from Rochester was summoned as smoke poured from the sprawling building. Firefighters from surrounding cities converged to help fight the blaze. Police Chief William Eckles said a few firefighters suffered some smoke inhalation, but there were no immediate reports of serious injuries.

By early evening crews were venting the ammonia tanks to reduce the hazard, said Kristine Hernandez, a spokeswoman at the makeshift emergency operations center.

Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand said there would be no public access to St. Charles. Both major highways through the city were closed and reporters were kept about 2 miles away.

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.

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.

North Star Foods is the second-largest employer in St. Charles with about 150 workers. Their futures were on the minds of some residents even as the fire burned.

“They might all lose their jobs,” Amber Kesler, a customer at the Good Sport Bar and Grill, said before the evacuation was ordered. “And the way the economy is going, you don’t want to lose your job.”

North Star Foods Inc. has been in business since 1971, according to its Web site. Its processes chicken, turkey, beef, pork and other food products.

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