Plant fire troubles SD

BY LARA BRICKER | RAPID CITY, SD | February 1, 2002

More than 500 people have been left jobless after an out-of-control fire destroyed a beef processing plant Wednesday in Rapid

City, SD.

As state and local officials began plans to

help the unemployed, faith-based disaster response

groups were already foreseeing serious long-term needs

in this community.

Many of the employees at the Federal Beef Processors

plant were paid minimum wage and had no other job

experience aside from their work at the plant. Before

the fire was even extinguished, plant employees were

lined up at the One Stop Career Center in downtown Rapid

City to fill out unemployment claims.

South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow on Thursday directed

state Labor Secretary Craig Johnson to take a team of

specialists to Rapid City on Friday to help workers who

were left unemployed. "Hundreds of people have been put

of work because of this fire and we need to provide

rapid response services to them as soon as possible,"

Janklow said in a statement.

The Rapid City One-Stop Career Center and the Career

Learning Center of the Black Hills held a meeting Friday

morning for Federal Beef Processors workers who are now

without employment, the statement from Janklow said. The

meeting will offer information on the availability of

services including unemployment insurance, employment

opportunities, employment counseling, and retraining


When the fire flared up, officials became concerned that

the building might collapse on a 1,500-gallon ammonia

tank inside the burning plant. The toxic anhydrous

ammonia was used for refrigeration at the plant.

The local high school, which is in close proximity to

the Federal Beef Processors plant, was cancelled

Wednesday and fire officials were urging residents to

watch television and listen to the radio for alerts

about the situation.

Pennington County Emergency Management Director Park

Owens said Thursday that the ammonia was no longer a

concern. "The wall collapsed and did no damage to the

tank," Owens said. "Over the day, the tank's safety

valve vented and dissipated all contents to the

atmosphere according to the Rapid City Fire Department."

Owens said evacuation was not an option in this case.

"There was never any evacuation planned as ammonia is

lighter than air and in-place sheltering is safer than

evacuation," he said. "Although the state offered help

in anything we needed, we did not anticipate the need to

request their assistance."

Local disaster response volunteers worry because many of

the people who lost their jobs had little education and

would have a tough time finding work in the area. Marc

Stewart, associate conference minister for the South

Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC)

said he contacted the national disaster response office

for the UCC to let his organization know a large

response might be needed.

"This was a major employer for low income jobs, a lot of

work release from the county jail," he said. "It was

harsh working conditions; it's a place where people can

work hard and make some money."

The fire was hard to miss Wednesday as the plant is in

the downtown area of Rapid City. "The smoke cloud was

harboring over much of the town for the morning,"

Stewart said.

More than 50 firefighters fought the blaze from outside

the building as fire officials determined it was not

safe to mount an internal attack. The cause of the fire

has not been determined.

Because the extent of damage from the fire -- including

unemployment -- has not been assessed yet, Stewart said

no local volunteer effort has been scheduled to help

those who lost their jobs. But, he added, there would

likely be some campaign to help. "South Dakota people

help each other when there's a need."

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