St. Charles starts the clean up - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

By Fanna Haile-Selassie

St. Charles starts the clean up

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ST. CHARLES, MN (FOX 47) -- Residents in St. Charles have started to come home, following a massive fire at the city's poultry processing plant, Northstar foods. It began Friday morning around 10:30. Firefighters say they finally got a good handle on it around two Saturday morning.

Emergency officials met early this morning and assessed that with the fire under control and the air quality in good condition, the city could start letting people come back by 10:30 Saturday morning. As people re-enter the city, they're starting to take a good look at how massive the fire really was.

The fire at Northstar Foods in St. Charles was so massive, the smoke plume was picked up by the national weather service's radar. That smoke plume hovering above the city also contained ammonia from 5 anhydrous ammonia tanks inside the building.

Saturday morning, the Minnesota Pollution Control deemed the air quality safe, and residents were allowed back into the city after officials decided to keep residents evacuated all night.

"They were going door to door in their vehicles saying, 'get out,' you know. At the time, it seemed a little bit silly, you know, because we weren't even near the smoke line. But I would have rather just got out of town because we didn't know what was going to happen here, "says St. Charles resident Greg Hoscheit.

The 150 or so employees who thought they could come back Saturday and see a glimmer of hope that they still may have a job, now have to look at their worst nightmare.

"Yeah, it's not good. I mean, look at this," explains Daniel Rojas, an employee at Northstar Foods. "You know, I was working here for 10 years already and now what I see, is like trash. I mean there's nothing. Nothing."

St. Charles Mayor, Bill Spitzer says despite the bad situation, things could have been a lot worse if it wasn't for the large amount of help from area firefighters and emergency personnel.

"It's just unbelievable the crews and the effort they put forth. Right on down to the city crew of St. Charles, to the firefighters, to the area firefighters, to mutual aid. It's just unbelievable the support that we've gotten."

At the height of help from everyone, there were 70 firefighters at one time. Some didn't leave until 6 Saturday morning.

"People in the community were bringing us water, cases of water, and food, and fruit, and they were really trying to take care of them. So, we kept them hydrated, we kept them fed and gave them breaks as they needed it," explains St. Charles fire chief Lyle Peterson.

After helping the firefighters, now many residents and officials say its up to them to pull together to help the employees and help their town overcome this crisis.

Mayor Spitzer announced today that he declared a local emergency for St. Charles to Governor Tim Pawlenty. He has not yet heard back from the Governor, but says he hopes the city will get some type of aid. And only said that the cost of the emergency situation is staggering.

Also, MnDOT has re-opened Highways 14 and 74, which were closed because of the fire.

Meanwhile, co-owner of Northstar Foods, Patrick Thesing, did appear before cameras this afternoon. He announced he was trying to help his employees as much as possible, but nothing has been set up.

Thesing did say the company will try to set up some type of fund for employees, but as of now, they are out of a job and should look into unemployed assistance from the state. He says the building is a total loss. An investigation into the cause is still going on and insurance agents are still trying to sort things out. Thesing says, depending on what they can get from insurance, he is not sure whether it's even cost-effective to rebuild in Saint Charles, but he says he does want to rebuild.

Thesing had this message to his employees.

"We appreciate your work and we're going to stand by you and try and get you either employment right away or assistance as soon as possible."

Northstar Foods is asking all employees to meet at the Moose Club on Tuesday at noon. There, the company will have healthcare representatives and their Human Relations department to help employees through this. More information will come at that time about the fate of the roughly 250 jobs.

While it's still up in the air if Thesing will rebuild in St. Charles, he guesses that it would cost between $60 to $75 million and about 2 years to build a plant that size. And to give you a sense of the company's worth, it averages about $100 million in annual sales.

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