Fire Still Going At Wisconsin Meatpacking Plant

CUDAHY, Wis. (AP) -- Fire crews on Tuesday wet down the remains of a blaze that destroyed parts of a sprawling meatpacking plant and left the future of the plant in question, as 1,400 workers were told to remain home for a second day.

Authorities hoped to extinguish the stubborn fire at the Patrick Cudahy Inc. plant by later Tuesday or Wednesday. The fire, which started Sunday night in a four-story building in a narrow space between the ceiling and sprinklers, led to the temporary evacuation of nearby residents Monday because of the danger it could cause the release of ammonia gas.

"It's not over yet. We have not declared the fire under control yet although it is contained," Cudahy Fire Chief Dan Mayer said at a news conference Tuesday morning. "There are two hot spots that are keeping us working. They're not worrying me at this time."

Firefighting efforts were slowed after a floor collapsed, shielding flames below from hose water, he said.

Dan Habighorst, a company spokesman, said the fire may have been fueled by cardboard, labels and other paper products stored in the building. He said the floor collapse and others like it could complicate efforts to determine the cause.

Even though the fire apparently started in a vacant space, Mayer said it was too early to suspect electrical causes or arson. However, he noted that the area of the roof where the fire began generally doesn't have much wiring.

The only people in the plant at the time were a few maintenance workers who phoned in a report of smoke and evacuated as ordered, plant officials said.

While the fire persisted Tuesday in some parts of the 117-year-old plant, about 350 managerial and clerical employees were back at work in unaffected areas.

The future was less certain for the plant's 1,450 production workers, who stayed home for the second straight day.

"We have a message on a call-in line that says for them to check in each day before they head to work," Habighorst said. He couldn't estimate how long it would be before production resumed.

The workers were not being paid by the company during the shutdown, Habighorst said, and were being encouraged to apply for unemployment benefits.

Smithfield Foods Inc., which owns the Patrick Cudahy plant, said it was evaluating the fire's possible fallout for customers.

"Currently, we do have available capacity at other Smithfield facilities and will be able to make up any product shortfalls in short order, minimizing any disruption to our customers," the company said in a statement Monday.

The company had no immediate comment Tuesday.

Smithfield Foods is the nation's largest hog producer and pork processor. The Smithfield, Va.-based company has been restructuring its business to focus on its packaged-meat business, like that at the Cudahy plant, as it deals with weak prices for hogs and tries to recover from record-high ingredient costs last year.

The fact that work was being moved temporarily from the Cudahy plant led to concerns that the work might not come back. Cudahy Mayor Ryan McCue pledged to do what he could to keep jobs in the area.

The fire prompted city officials to evacuate residents in a one-mile radius of the company for about 12 hours Monday. Because the plant has tanks of ammonia, which are used in refrigeration, fire officials worried about the risk of explosion or the release of toxic fumes.

The evacuation order, which applied to about 15,000 residents, was lifted Monday evening. Officials said air-quality tests showed no evidence of ammonia, and the fire wasn't expected to reach the area where the ammonia was stored.

More in Operations