Ark. city worries after plant fire

March 24, 2008 12:05:20 PM PDT
Part of this small Arkansas town was evacuated Monday for a second time in the aftermath of a fire and series of explosions that destroyed a meat packing plant at the core of the community's economy. Emergency crews cleared homes and businesses within a half-mile of the plant Monday because of worries that a tank of anhydrous ammonia used for refrigeration might catch fire amid the smoldering debris from Sunday's fire, the state Department of Emergency Management said.

Monday's evacuation order covered much of the eastern side of town.

Firefighters were unable to fight the Sunday afternoon blaze because of the danger from the estimated 88,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia stored at the plant. The Cargill Meat Solutions plant also had 100,000 pounds of nonflammable carbon dioxide used in refrigeration systems, said Renee Preslar, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Emergency Management.

Officials said dispatchers received the first emergency call about the fire at 12:58 p.m. Sunday.

Workers "were doing some welding on some fans," Logan County emergency manager Don Fairbanks said. "The welders had put their equipment up and turned around and there was a fire."

As the fire grew, officials said a series of small explosions rattled the 150,000-square-foot plant, which consisted of metal-framed buildings.

Before Monday's evacuation, firefighters had thought the plant's tanks had been emptied of anhydrous ammonia, either from leaking into the atmosphere or from being consumed by the fire.

The fire prompted an evacuation of about 180 people in the town Sunday. Residents of a nursing home and patients at the city's hospital were among those chased from the area. No one was injured.

A witness said she heard the explosion while staying at a hotel near the plant. Meredith Voges, 22, of Connecticut called the scene chaotic.

"The whole factory was ablaze with black smoke flying into the air, plumes of smoke," said Voges, in the area to shoot footage for a television program about a Booneville school principal.

The plant produces more than 2 million pounds of ground beef and steak a week. Cargill officials did not offer a damage estimate, but Logan County Judge Edgar Holt estimated the plant was worth more than $100 million before the fire.

"They just did a $40 million expansion and it's gone," Holt said.

Cargill Inc. has about 2,000 employees in Arkansas, according to a fact sheet on its Web site. Mark Klein, a spokesman for the Minneapolis-based company, said the plant is closed Sundays but about 20 contractors and a few other employees were at the site at the time of the fire.

Klein said the plant employs about 800 people, making it the largest employer in Booneville.

Manuel Mann, 69, pastor of the Southside Assembly of God in Booneville, said he didn't know what the town would do if the plant didn't reopen.

"It's going to be devastating," Mann said.