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Wis. Meatpacking Plant Fire Out, Damage Could Top $50M

Thu, 07/09/2009 - 4:14am

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The stubborn fire that gutted part of a sprawling meatpacking plant in suburban Milwaukee is finally out.

That declaration came Wednesday afternoon as the estimate of damage from the two-and-a-half-day fire soared to $50 million or more.

Despite that, company officials offered hope that portions of the Patrick Cudahy Inc. plant will be rebuilt, saving one of the area's major employers.

"I'm delighted at the news that they are committed to the city of Cudahy and rebuilding their operations," Cudahy Mayor Ryan McCue said. "We're happy that they're anticipating getting their employees back to work.

"This could be seen as an opportunity," McCue added. "Maybe in two or three years down the road, they'll have more employees here" than before the fire.

McCue said the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Fire officials said it started Sunday night in one of the plant's oldest buildings, in a space below the roof but above the fourth floor and the building's sprinkler system. That allowed the fire to burn in areas inaccessible to firefighters and the millions of gallons of water poured on the blaze until the roof and floors collapsed.

Heavy smoke and fears of toxic fumes caused authorities to order a 12-hour evacuation of the surrounding area Monday. Air quality tests that evening showed no danger, and people were allowed to return.

It took all day Tuesday and until 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before the city declared the fire extinguished.

Patrick Cudahy President William Otis said later Wednesday that the damage could total more than $50 million, based on the value of lost equipment and supplies as well as damaged structures. But he said it's just a "ballpark figure" until the more than 1 million-square-foot plant can be assessed.

"It could be in excess of $50 million," he said. "We don't know."

If all goes well, production in some unaffected areas could restart next week, Otis said. Eventually, 75 percent to 80 percent of the plant's 1,400 production workers could get their jobs back, he said.

"We're going inch-by-inch in this 1.3 million square foot plant" to make sure conditions are safe before making plans to resume production, Otis said. Office areas weren't affected and have been staffed.

The Patrick Cudahy plant is owned by Smithfield Foods of Smithfield, Va., the nation's largest hog producer and pork processor.

Dennis H. Treacy, vice president of environmental and corporate affairs for Smithfield Foods, said in a statement that the company is grateful to Cudahy residents and the firefighters and other public safety personnel who dealt with the emergency.

"Thanks to their hard work, no one was injured in the fire," he said. Once the damage can be assessed, he added, "we can get to work to determine how best to get the plant up and running again."

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