First responders fought and a community rallied this weekend in the wake of a fire that for hours burned through Finney County’s largest employer, Tyson Fresh Meats which has more than 3,500 employees.
As the flames were fought and extinguished in the dead of night and following morning, the governor took notice, Tyson promised to support its employees and local nonprofits and businesses showed up with supplies and support.
The Finney County Communication Center received a 911 call from an operations manager at 8:35 p.m. Friday reporting a fire in the west end of the Holcomb meatpacking plant, the portion of the building used for harvest, where the animals are slaughtered. Tyson later confirmed in a statement that the fire started in the box shop.
The Garden City Fire Department responded to the scene with assistance from the Holcomb Fire Department, Finney County Sheriff’s Office, Finney County EMS, Finney County Emergency Management and the Kansas Highway Patrol, said interim Garden City Fire Chief Rick Collins. Robinson Oil, Garden City USD 457 and Holcomb USD 363 also provided assistance throughout the night.
A Tyson hazmat team was on scene to monitor oil and chemicals involved in running the plant, he said.
By Saturday morning, part of the roof over the west end of the building had collapsed, making portions of the building difficult to access, Collins said.
By 1 p.m., he said firefighters were able to access those areas to extinguish fires.
By 9:30 a.m. Saturday — more than 12 hours later — the fire was deemed under control, and by 11 a.m. assisting agencies the Finney County Sheriff’s Office and Finney County EMS were released from the scene, leaving GCFD firefighters on site to monitor possible hot spots and flare-ups, said Garden City Police Department Sgt. Lana Urteaga.
Collins said firefighters would leave the plant late Saturday afternoon and advise Tyson to call the GCFD if needed.
It is too early to determine the cause of the fire or the extent of its damage, Collins said. He said there are no reported injuries in connection with the incident.
About 1,200 employees were on duty at the time of the fire, 400 of whom were working the harvest shift on the west side of the building closer to the fire.
All were evacuated from the building at 8:30 p.m., according to a news release from Tyson.
Approximately 75 employees were taken in school buses from local school districts to Holcomb Elementary School, which had been set up as a reunification point for employees, Urteaga said in a news release.
By 1 a.m., all employees had dispersed from the school, according to the release.
The incident isn’t the first time fire has damaged a prominent beef processing plant in Finney County. On Christmas Day in 2000, a large fire consumed the center of the ConAgra Beef Co. plant, formerly Monfort, resulting in its permanent shutdown and the loss of 2,300 local jobs.
Aid, support from Topeka
Saturday, as first responders continued to fight the fire, the incident received attention across the state.
Gov. Laura Kelly directed Secretary of Commerce David Toland and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam to travel to Finney County that day to meet with representatives from Tyson, local government and economic development officials to coordinate state aid if needed, according to a news release.
According to the release, the Department of Commerce and Department of Labor have rapid response resources available to assist employees and businesses affected by closings and other setbacks.
“Our agencies are prepared to coordinate support for Tyson and its workers as needed during this challenging time,” Kelly said in the release.
Separately, Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, who was raised in Meade, released a statement Saturday afternoon about the fire, offering “our prayers and our commitment” to those affected by the fire and thanks to emergency responders.
“The Tyson plant is an integral part of our ag economy,” Ryckman said in the release. “From the Kansas ranchers and feedlots to the refrigeration and shipping companies that partner with Tyson, the regional and statewide impact of this emergency closure cannot be understated. The House stands ready to do everything we can to help Tyson rebuild and continue to thrive in Western Kansas.”
After canceling its lone Saturday “A” shift for harvest and processing on Friday, Tyson announced Saturday morning that the Holcomb plant would close indefinitely until the company could assess the damage.
Later that day, a memo that Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman confirmed was from the company stated that the plant will pay employees “a weekly guarantee until production resumes.”
“We are here to ensure our team members are taken care of. We understand that this is a difficult time ... ” the memo stated.
The company also wrote in a release: “We’re grateful no one was hurt during the fire at our Holcomb, Kansas, beef plant Friday night. We appreciate the hard work, dedication and quick response from the Holcomb and Garden City fire departments, as well as the Finney County sheriff’s office.”