Fire smolders; workers mourn

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Photo by Jennifer Hemmingsen

As firefighters continued to battle the blaze at Farmland Foods Monday, officials sought relief and employees wondered about the future of their jobs.

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

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As firefighters continued to battle the blaze at Farmland Foods Monday, officials sought relief and employees wondered about the future of their jobs.

Farmland boiler operator Bob Hillman was working when the building caught fire Sunday.

&uot;My buddy walked by when it started and he heard a big bang,&uot; Hillman said. &uot;He said ‘watch your boiler, because I think you broke a line or something.’&uot;

About a minute later, another employee told Hillman to call 911, because the box storage room was on fire, he said.

&uot;It was really hot and really fast,&uot; he said. &uot;By the time the fire department got here it was really going. I think it got into the ceiling of the main building.&uot;

No more than 100 Farmland employees were working when the fire broke out, Hillman said. Those who were – the bacon line – got out unharmed.

Employees’ lives were spared, but their livelihoods are all threatened by the blaze. If the plant can be repaired, it will take a long time, employees agreed.

The fire appeared to have gone right down the center of the plant, through production lines and storage areas, said Farmland electronic technician Larry Hoium. From where he was standing, about 75 percent of the building seemed to be damaged.

&uot;It went right down the main hallway of the main part of the plant,&uot; Hoium said. &uot;It looks like it gutted just about everything.&uot;

Hillman and Hoium spent Monday morning with several other Farmland employees, watching fire crews from across Garfield Avenue and reminiscing about hard times at the plant. The men have survived strikes, corporate buyouts and pay cuts in their years at the plant. They have been fired by companies who purchased the plant and rehired with lower wages and benefits. Working at the plant has been hard sometimes, but this is shaping up to be the worst time ever, they said.

&uot;We’ve been through these bad times before,&uot; said a man who has worked at the plant for 40 years. &uot;But this is a tragedy for sure. I feel bad for the younger generations starting up and buying homes. I feel bad for them.&uot;

&uot;We’ve been through something like this before, but never this severe,&uot; said another employee. &uot;This is really a tragedy. There is no other way to describe it.&uot;

Farmland computer technician Kevin Oldenkamp reported to work at 9 a.m. to see if management needed his help. They didn’t, but he remained hopeful the fire wouldn’t mean an extended vacation for him and other workers. From across the street, the damage appeared to be concentrated in older, largely vacant areas of the plant, he said.

Oldenkamp wouldn’t speculate on the probability of Farmland rebuilding the damaged plant, but Farmland officials could decide to move production into another vacant space at the south end of the facility, he said.

&uot;I guess I’m going to be optimistic,&uot; he said. &uot;But (if they do rebuild) it will be a while, and it will be a lot of work.&uot;