Minn. Paper Mill Offline For Repair Before Blaze

The Verso Paper plant needed to fix a leaking pipe, which caused them to switch the source of cooling water for compressors, where the explosion later occurred.

SARTELL, Minn. (AP) β€” A Sartell paper mill that was badly damaged in a Memorial Day explosion and fire had been shut down to repair a leaking water pipe shortly before the blaze, the St. Cloud Times reported.

The shutdown caused the plant to switch its source of cooling water for compressors. Employees later cited those compressors as the spot where they saw smoke and flames just before the explosion, as the plant was being brought back online.

The newspaper cited statements from nine employees to police that it obtained (http://on.sctimes.com/NnBhfe) in a data request. The state fire marshal's office hasn't finished its investigation and hasn't released any information about a possible cause.

One worker died and four others were hurt. Most of the mill's 259 hourly and salaried workers have been laid off and the mill is expected to be idle into the fall.

The leaking pipe was discovered the morning of May 28. As the plant shut down to enable its repair, it switched from using service water to cool the compressors to another source, according to the documents obtained by the Times. That other source was either city water or water from another well, according to police interviews with Verso employees.

The plant then restarted at about 10:50 a.m., about 20 minutes before the explosion. Interviews with employees show that at least three workers saw flames coming from one of several compressors in a room near the roll wrap area of the plant.

The plant's fire brigade was called to the roll wrap area, and employee Jon Maus grabbed a fire extinguisher and headed toward the compressor room, according to the documents. But other employees warned him away because of possible chemicals in the room, and he and a co-worker turned and were running from the room when the explosion happened, the Times reported.

An employee noticed the leaky pipe at 6:30 a.m., about 75 minutes after a 911 caller reported "really loud noises" coming from the Verso plant. The noise was so loud that it awakened the caller and prompted Sartell police to send an officer to investigate the noise.

It's unclear whether that call was related to the leaking pipe that forced the plant to shut down.

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