The fight of a lifetime

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 8, 2002

On fire truck 917, Deputy Captain Mark Light of the Albert Lea Fire Department immediately realized that it would be a major fire when he saw the massive smoke pouring out of the Farmland building.

It was around 5:05 p.m., Sunday, July 8, last year. Four firefighters from the blue shift were dispatched by a 9-1-1 call from the plant at 5:02. The 60-hour-long struggle with the fire and smoke, which employed 247 firefighters and 58 vehicles, started from that moment.

&uot;The room was full of smoke. I could not even see what was burning,&uot; said firefighter Dennis Glassel, 31, who went into the box-storage building where the fire had started. With his partner Scott Schumaker, Glassel triggered the water hose, half blindly.

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Glassel had joined the force just two weeks before. Though he had been a volunteer firefighter at Hayward for two years, Glassel had never experienced actual firefighting.

Outside the building, Light placed an all-call to the dispatch center. Chief Richard Sydnes and blue shift Captain Mark Roche, who was on vacation, arrived shortly and decided to pull back Glassel and Schumaker to evaluate the situation.

At the beginning, the fire seemed to be contained in one of two rooms in the box-storage bulding at the north end of the plant. But soon they found out there was an 8-by-8-foot opening in the wall that divided the building and the four-story center complex.

The fire spread through the hole, and Sydnes decided to send an interior attack team into the center complex through the west side.

&uot;Inside was dark and hot. It was like a maze, with narrow stairs,&uot; Roche recalled. Teams of three fighters kept rotating every 20 to 30 minutes. That was the maximum they could stay in the heat. It was a sweltering summer evening. And the protective gear and air tanks weigh more than 50 pounds.

The blaze rampaged all over in every floor, apparently spreading through a four-foot-tall bunker under the floor. The space was used to lay utility lines and had few walls to impede the fire.

The extreme heat caused a series of flash overs &045; sudden blasts of gas emitted from building materials.

Captain Roche needed to pull out the team several times. It was during one of the withdrawals when the room of the center complex collapsed. Roche’s judgment might have saved some men’s lives.

Fire Inspector Doug Johnson was busy gathering information about the structure from Farmland maintenance staff. The 90-year-old plant was built with additions on top of additions, which made the plant one big labyrinth.

Getting water was another issue. The well pump at the plant could not sustain enough, so the fighters made a pool on the site and transported water from the city waterworks.

Another concern was hazardous chemicals. &uot;There was every chemical you can think of in the plant,&uot; Johnson said. Ammonia was discharged into the air, which ended up closing the adjacent Almco factory the next day but did not cause more serious consequences, and another tank was shipped out.

&uot;Good decisions and coordination,&uot; Johnson said, describing the three-day fight that resulted in only one smoke casualty and minor dehydration suffering.

Chief Sydnes stayed in command more than 24 hours continuously. He came back to the site at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday after a night’s rest.

At the plant site, almost like a battlefield, rookie fireman Glassel sat on the ground to find a moment of silence before going back to confront the raging blaze.

Adding another interior attack team from the east side, the firefighters successflly prevented the fire from spreading further to the south. The blaze was extinguished finally in the morning of Wednesday after about 3 million gallons of water were poured.

&uot;We did the best we could,&uot; Roche said. The Farmland fire was definitely the biggest fire he’s ever fought in his 21 years of service.

Preparing for this size of fire is something he has been always kept in mind. &uot;It happened. It can happen, and it’s gonna happen.&uot;