Column: Memories of the big fire aren’t hard for most to recall

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 6, 2002

It’s Albert Lea’s version of the JFK assassination or the Challenger explosion or Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11.

Where were you when you heard JFK was slain? What were you doing when you turned on the TV and saw, for the first time, the footage of a jet smashing into the World Trade Center?

Where were you when you heard about the Farmland fire?

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It was an event that doesn’t compare to those other defining moments, but in the history of Albert Lea, I’m guessing its up there with some of the biggest singular moments you can pinpoint.

Most people I’ve talked to can tell you exactly what they were doing or where they were when they heard about the fire, or when they first noticed the smoke coming out of the factory and the crowds starting to build up along the road and in the parking lot.

Here’s my story: It was a Sunday afternoon and I

had worked up an appetite digging in the garden. We have no air conditioning and it was one of those days when you don’t want to cook because it’s too hot to turn on the oven or stove. So we decided to eat out.

We headed out East Main, fixing on a meal at one of the restaurants out there.

As we drove past the Farmland plant, I noticed smoke coming out of one of the buildings. There were no fire trucks yet, no crowds. But I vividly recall seeing one man running across the asphalt from the plant, heading for a small building in the parking lot. Was he calling for help? I don’t know. But a few seconds later, the first fire engine sirens could be heard off to the west.

Instead of heading through the stoplight at Garfield and on to dinner, we took a right onto Front Street and headed to the Tribune to get the camera.

By the time we got back, fire trucks were on the scene and firefighters were at work. The entrance to the plant had not been blocked off yet, so we drove right in. I got out and started shooting.

At the time, the fire didn’t appear too serious. It looked like it was contained in the small building where it started. I didn’t see any flames, just smoke. After less than an hour, it looked to me &045; knowing admittedly little about fire &045; that it was going to be a relatively minor blaze. I had seen industrial fires before, and all of them had been minor.

The smoke was thinning and changing color. The firefighters didn’t seem to be acting with as much urgency (again, I don’t know much about fires, so I may have been mistaken).

So, we left. I planned to have a reporter contact somebody later, once things settled down, to get the story. We headed off and had dinner.

But on the way back, it became clear this was no minor industrial fire. The smoke was still pouring out, and there were even more fire trucks at the scene. We stopped again and I took more photos. This time, flames started to appear as firefighters tore off pieces of the roof to get at the fire. The smoke grew darker and thicker. By the time another hour or two had passed, it was clear the fire was spreading.

It was time to call the photographer and turn the camera over to him.

Just standing there taking photos in that heat was enough to render me tired and thirsty; I can only imagine how the firefighters, wearing their heavy equipment and fighting the fire at close range, must have felt.

I stayed in contact with my reporters and photographer the rest of the day and visited the site a couple more times. I was surprised the next morning at 5 a.m. when I arrived at work and was told the fire was still going.

That all happened a year ago. It was the first Sunday after the Fourth of July &045; tomorrow’s date, July 8.

To mark the anniversary, we have been planning a series of articles for next week’s paper, starting Monday. The Farmland fire has been covered heavily over the last year, but we’re hoping to take a different approach and bring you accounts of the fire and its aftermath that you may not have heard before.

The future of Farmland in Albert Lea is still uncertain, but last year’s fire is an event that residents will probably never forget, and people will be telling their stories about it for years to come.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.