Fire destroys veneer plant
A weekend fire may have destroyed their plant, but the owners of Norstam Veneers Inc. don’t intend to let that act shatter their business.
‘One way or another, we’re going to stay in business,’ Danny Utz of Corydon, the Mauckport company’s director of human resource, said yesterday morning.
That’s the message that was also delivered Monday to Norstam’s 115 employees who gathered on the other side of S.R. 135 from the plant’s charred remains in a building offered to them by Karl Ferree of Corydon.
Utz said the employees, many who live in Kentucky, were told to ‘go ahead and sign up for unemployment,’ although some details are still being worked out, such as where they have to go to file to receive those benefits.
The workers were also told that they could pick up their paychecks tomorrow (Thursday) at a follow-up meeting between 8 and 9 a.m., Utz said, and that the company would rebuild although it had not been determined yet if they would relocate.
‘Hopefully, we’ll have more information for them then,’ he said.
Officials aren’t sure yet how the fire started.
Utz said everything appeared to be OK about 8 p.m. Saturday when a night watchman made his rounds.
‘At 9, he smelled smoke in the back warehouse,’ Utz said.
Cecil Garmon, chief of the Heth Township Volunteer Fire Dept., said they were notified about 9:05 p.m. of a report of smoke at the facility.
Dan Cook, the fire department’s secretary-treasurer, was the first on the scene. He relayed to dispatch that there was ‘a lot of smoke’ when he arrived, Garmon said.
Because of the county’s mutual aid agreement, Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Dept. had already been dispatched.
Garmon, who was on his way home from Corydon, went to the scene off Overlook Drive. He was met there by the chief of the Meade County (Ky.) fire department.
‘He said to me, ‘I think we’re going to need a lot of water’, ‘ Garmon said last night. ‘I told him I thought so, too.’
Cook served as the scene’s incident commander; he was assisted by Katie Sutherland, who checked in firefighters arriving on the scene. Some came from as far away as Utica.
Garmon estimated that between 700,000 and 1 million gallons of water were used to extinguish the fire that consumed at least two of the four warehouses on the property.
Besides the three fire departments already mentioned, 13 others sent firefighters and at least one tanker truck. The tankers delivered water from four sites located near the plant. Five ‘drop tanks’ were set up around the perimeter of the plant to hold the water until it was needed. Four aerial trucks shot water down into the flames.
It was nearly impossible to get water to the fire,’ said Greg Reas, Harrison County Emergency Management Agency Director, because the warehouses were so large. ‘It was a tough situation.’
S.R. 135 was shut down to through traffic from about 10 p.m. Saturday until about 7 a.m. Sunday, Garmon said.
One of Heth Township VFD’s tanker trucks needed to be towed Sunday morning to Louisville; its transmission had gone out.
The last firefighters cleared the scene just after 1:30 Sunday afternoon.
‘I thought everybody did a good job,’ Garmon said.
‘I was real proud of all of them,’ he said. ‘I thought they did an excellent job.’
The American Red Cross arrived during the night and provided coffee and doughnuts and cookies. Residents brought cases of water and power drinks, as well as sandwiches.
Jackson-Jennings Co-op delivered diesel fuel to the scene so firefighters could refuel their vehicles.
Utz said Norstam Veneers started in the early 1970s as a sawmill. The veneer aspect of the business was added in 1979. In more recent years, it became an ESOP ‘ Employee Stock Ownership/Option Plan ‘ company that is operated by a management team, he said.
The company had gone through various ‘stages of growth’ since then and had a ‘record year’ in 2007, he said.
And, Utz added, it looked like the company was on track to surpass that in 2008.
‘Our biggest inventory was veneer,’ Utz said.
He estimated that perhaps $3 million in veneer inventory was lost in the fire.
Utz met with an insurance adjuster Monday, and power has been restored to the sawmill portion of the plant.
‘We’re going to try production Monday,’ Utz said.
Eight maintenance workers are still on the payroll, and other employees have been given the opportunity to sign up for clean-up duty, for which they will receive wages.
‘One (employee) wanted to do it on his own time’ for free, Utz said. ‘There’s an amazing generosity on the part of these people.’
Offers like that don’t stop with Norstam’s employees. Utz said some of their customers have showed up to offer support, and similar businesses have offered the use of their facilities so the veneer company can get back to work sooner. Office space has been offered, too. That may not be needed, as a mobile office was to be delivered to the site yesterday.
Utz also expressed gratitude to the dozens of firefighters and other emergency personnel who responded to the fire.
‘I don’t think anyone really appreciates volunteer fire departments until they come,’ he said. ‘We really appreciate what they did for us.’