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Fire Idles Workers at Monmouth's Largest Employer

T.J. Carson
Firefighters on aerial ladders battle the blaze on the north side of the Smithfield Foods plant in Monmouth Monday afternoon.

Production at the Smithfield Foods processing plant in Monmouth is shut down for the time being as executives from the company and the city  look into the damage from Monday's fire.  Around 1,600 people work at the plant.

The fire was called in at 5:09 p.m.  Crews from nine departments worked to bring fire under control by 7:30 p.m., though Monmouth Fire Chief Casey Rexroat said firefighters had to extinguish flare-ups throughout the night.

Rexroat said it's believed the fire started in a rendering area in the north part of the plant, though it's not yet known how it started. The extent of the damage is still being determined.

Rexroat said one firefighter was treated at the hospital for heat exhaustion and was released. No other injuries are reported and all of Smithfield's employees are accounted for. Due to the Labor Day holiday, only about a dozen workers were in the plant when the fire started.  One of those workers is Joseph Hathaway of Galesburg, who waited out the fire with co-workers at a gravel parking lot south of the plant.

“All we saw was a bunch of black smoke when we were evacuated out. We had a couple people come in, tell us there was a fire, and they escorted us out rather quickly,” Hathaway said.

The Cloverleaf Cold Storage facility was also evacuated during the fire.  City Administrator Lowell Crow said that was done as a precaution because a flash freezing tunnel connects Smithfield and Cloverleaf. He said there was a risk of an ammonia cloud forming if the flames reached the tunnel.

The nearby Prairie Point apartment complex was also evacuated as a safety precaution but those residents were allowed to return to their homes Monday night.

Crow hoped to learn soon when work can resume at the Smithfield plant. He said the business is important to the community's economy.  

“That plant does employ a little over 1,600 people, which affects the community as a whole. Additionally, they are one of our largest users of water and sewer, and that’s an additional revenue source,” Crow said.

He added the city is insured for revenue losses from the plant being closed.