CANTON — A state investigation will reveal more details about an early morning fire at Evergreen Packaging’s paper mill on Monday that killed two contract workers.

Mill Manager Wally McDonald confirmed the Canton Mill fire was in a process vessel, but details on the fire were sparse even a day later.

A mid-morning statement from mill officials confirmed the fire had been extinguished and there was no further threat of it spreading or causing additional damage to infrastructure.

“This tank was being repaired as part of a maintenance outage within the mill,” McDonald added in a Monday afternoon press release. “The local fire department quickly responded to the scene and extinguished the fire.”

In that release, McDonald confirmed what had been rumored shortly after the fire erupted — that two people passed away as a result of the blaze.

“It is with great sadness that we confirm two contractors involved in the tank repairs died as a result of the fire,” he said. “Their families have been notified and have our deepest sympathy and support during this very difficult time.”

As contractors, the individuals were from out of the area and not regularly employed by the mill.

“An immediate investigation regarding the cause of the fire has begun. The Canton mill is cooperating fully with the local police, fire department, and regulatory agencies,” the news release stated. “We appreciate the bravery and support of our local emergency response personnel. We will share updates and information as appropriate, but wish to respect the privacy and difficult circumstances for the families of the contractors who lost their lives.”

The investigation

An accident where there is a loss of life or an injury involving a loss of a limb or eye triggers an investigation by the N.C. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Division.

“The fire happened during a cold mill outage, where workers shut down equipment to do repair work,” said Dolores Quesenberry, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Labor. “We have limited details while an investigation is under way.”

Quesenberry said the investigation is generally limited to the events surrounding the accident unless events observed onsite indicate the need to look further.

The investigator will collect physical evidence, including photographs, plus interview employees, witnesses and management to determine the cause of the accident.

If violations are noted, citations will be issued.

Investigations can last up to six months.

Quick response

Canton Fire Chief Tim Carver said the town’s three-person fire crew getting off shift responded to the Evergreen fire at 5:25 a.m.

At least 50 firefighters responded from across the county as a result of the mill’s call for mutual aid, he said. The Canton fire department was very familiar with the mill and its needs, he said, and crews from other departments worked with a liaison as they battled the blaze.

Departments from as far as Saunook and Fines Creek arrived to help. As a new crew arrived, they stayed in a staging area until their resources and help were needed, Carver said.

Canton Police Chief Shawn Gaddis said his officers were on the scene helping with traffic control at the entrance and exit routes at the mill and added that Canton Fire Chief Tim Carver was on-scene at the mill.

Greg Shuping, Haywood County Emergency Services director said the call for the fire came in at 5:22 a.m. Every fire department in the county was dispatched to help. By monitoring radio traffic, it sounded as if the fire was under control by 7:04 a.m.

Shuping said county emergency personnel tour the mill every other year or so to be familiar with the layout in the event assistance is needed, a time frame that probably isn’t often enough, he said.

“We’re just happy we have a lot of veterans in that paper mill who know their job,” he said. “Can you imagine having to deal with this without the longevity of the folks who work there? For a normal firefighter without the benefit of their support, things probably would not go too well.”

In the afternoon following the fire, Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers expressed his condolences, but also praise for the responders who got the fire under control quickly.

“In Canton and Haywood County, the mill is more than just a place that produces paper; it produces a blue-collar way of life that we take pride in,” he said. “I was also not surprised how our local fire departments, law-enforcement, and emergency services responded — no excuses and directly into the crisis. I have no doubt that because of the actions of Evergreen and our emergency services, lives were saved and a bad situation ceased before it became worse. I cannot express how much each prayer and emergency responder meant to our community this morning.”

At the Haywood County Board of Commissioner meeting Monday evening, Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley started with meeting with a moment of silence to remember the workers who died in the fire.

Commissioner Tommy Long, who works at the mill, praised the emergency response offered by those in the county.

“The mill appreciates the effort that took place,” he said. “It would have been a lot worse if the fire had spread. It was a very sobering day and we want to remember those men who died.”

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