An estimated 80 employees lose their jobs as one of the county’s largest employers burns
An explosion rocked the Coin-tainer building at 214 Eighth St. NE just a few minutes before 10 p.m. on Jan. 15, resulting in a fierce fire that sent thick, black smoke billowing into the night sky.
It was 9:57 p.m. when the county’s 911 center received a call from employees working the second shift at the Coin-tainer facility, a manufacturer of coin wrappers and other currency-handling products.
Prior to firefighters arriving on the scene, Coin-tainer employees executed one of the most important tasks of the evening: They took a head count not once, but twice, to ensure that all employees had safely made it out of the building. Deputies from Mille Lacs County confirmed that all employees made it out safely.
Dave and Barbara Walters, owners of Coin-tainer, stated in a letter to the Times that the fact that no employee or firefighter was seriously injured during the explosion or while fighting the fire was something to be thankful for.
When Milaca Co-Fire Chiefs Craig Billings and Greg Lerud arrived on scene with a crew of three other firefighters, fire and smoke were coming from the center of the nearly block-long building and an electrical box was arcing, Billings said.
The electrical box was putting on a light show, displaying many colors, including oranges, blues and greens.
“I have never seen fireworks like that except for on the Fourth of July,” Billings said.
More firefighters were on their way from the Milaca fire station, but Foreston and Princeton fire departments were called in to provide mutual aid. Foley and Onamia fire departments were eventually called in to assist, as well.
While the cause of the fire has yet to be determined, this much is known: The large rolls of paper used in the production of the coin wrappers rolls and 55-gallon drums of solvents helped fuel the fire.
Shortly after 10 p.m. when the first Milaca truck arrived on scene, firefighters connected to a hydrant east of the burning building. Three fire lines were initially hooked up: two hand lines manned by firefighters used to initially attack the fire and a third line used to feed water to the building’s sprinkler system, Lerud said. Moments later the second Milaca truck arrived on scene with five more firefighters. From that crew, two more manned water lines were established.
The firefighters made entry to the building and were backed up by the Foreston crew that made entry from the far east side of the building.
“We were in there until the roof began to fail,” Lerud said.
Meanwhile, Princeton arrived and fought the fire from the back and kept a watchful eye on the North Central Transportation building at 265 10th St. NE.
But as the fire burned on and a threat remained to North Central Transportation, a decision was made to go from a offensive attack of the fire to a defensive approach.
“The decision was made to bring down the roof of the building,” Lerud said of Coin-tainer.
With that decision in hand, firefighters worked to contain the fire. When all was said and done, the building was a total loss.
After fire crews cleared the scene at 3 a.m., one truck and two firefighters remained on scene to keep an eye on the building, which had been allowed to burn out on its own.
The Milaca Fire Department was called back to the scene at about 6:15 a.m. Thursday because CenterPoint Energy had concerns about a gas meter at the site.
The Fire Department had shut off the gas at the meters on Wednesday night and provided assistance so CenterPoint Energy could dig out the gas lines away from the building and cap them.
At 8:08 a.m. the Fire Department was called out again, this time because it was believed that the fire had rekindled. That wasn’t the case, however, and the call was canceled.
On Thursday morning, the fire was still burning. There were many “hot spots” that remained. The Fire Department did not return to the scene Thursday, Lerud said. However, the state fire marshal initiated an investigation of the fire Thursday morning.
Billings and a crew returned to the scene Friday to put water on the remaining hot spots. By then the smoke from the building had died down a great amount, Lerud said.
“Now there’s just a small amount of smoke,” Lerud said Tuesday morning.
This was more than the burning of a building
The morning after the Coin-tainer fire, city and county officials were working the phones and email notifying several state agencies of the tragic loss of Coin-tainer with the goal of receiving assistance for displaced workers.
That’s because Coin-tainer is Milaca’s largest private-sector employer and the fifth largest manufacturer in Mille Lacs County.
The company is believed to have employed 80 to 100 people, in addition to as many as 100 independent contractors who performed piece-work for the company.
Richard Baker, Community Development coordinator for Mille Lacs County, told members of the Milaca Economic Development Authority that he has seen data suggesting that the loss of 100 jobs can affect 400 people in a community and have an economic impact of as much as $12 million.
For example, a 2010 story on Coin-tainer stated that each week 15 semitrailers pull into Milaca to pick up product for Wal-Mart. Another 10 semitrailers picked up product for Office Max, Office Depot, Target and the U.S. Mint. There is the potential that the drivers of these trucks ate meals while in Milaca, purchased items at local businesses, fueled up at gas stations and even possibly stayed at the local hotel.
Local lending institutions could also be impacted by the Coin-tainer fire.
In 2010 Coin-tainer, was the recipient of a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan in the millions of dollars aimed at keeping businesses in communities less than 5,000 in population. First National Bank of Milaca was the lender under that program, a 2010 story in the Times states.
As of Tuesday, city and county officials were hopeful that the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development would be in Milaca soon to help dislocated workers through its Rapid Response program, which assists employees of companies where layoffs affect 50 or more employees.
Coin-tainer owners Dave and Barbara Walters have said that they, too, will be working with local and state agencies in an effort to assist their employees as they move into the future.