Residents wait to be able to return to their homes

By John Weiss

ST. CHARLES — As firefighters fought a huge fire inside St. Charles on Friday, children watched movies in the sanctuary of St. Charles Borromeo outside town while adults chatted, the assisted-living center residents rested in the social hall and the kitchen was preparing to feed supper to 150.

Many St. Charles resident came here after the town was evacuated following the fire at North Star Foods processing plant. Many others went to stay with family or friends or to a park.

Lev Reynolds, a Red Cross volunteer from the Southeast Minnesota chapter in Rochester, said the agency was getting ready to have about 30 people sleep at the church for the night. But if the fire wasn’t contained by 9 p.m., it would have about 50 families.


"At this point we are just sitting tight seeing what’s happening next," said Reynolds.

The church has been great, he added. People are relaxed.

"They’re having fun," he said. "It’s sort of an adventure. It will wear off tomorrow."

Waiting was the hardest thing, said Karen Ellsworth, who was inside the church. Her husband and two nephewswere fighting the fire and she was worried. She got cell-phone updates. Other relatives of firefighters were also there, also keeping in touch.

"We are very scared, but we are very worried whenever they go out," she said. "But this is the worst time that we can remember."

She was told that the big worry was the anhydrous ammonia tanks.

"They are saying it’s not if they blow but when they blow," Ellsworth said.

She heard about the fire when her husband’s fire pager went off. She does day care and the parents picked up the children at her home, or at the church. She also had her three children with her.


Outside, Todd Grimes and his dog, Max, waited outside, loafing in the back of his SUV.

"We were just at home and heard it on the radio, actually, that they were evacuating the town," he said.

He was downtown soon after the fire started.

"You could see a little bit of smoke then and you could tell it was North Star Foods."

If he couldn’t get back home overnight, he and his wife would stay with friends in Winona.

When Joanne Zeitler found out it was time to leave, however, she grabbed Lipton tea and magazines and headed for Whitewater State Park, north of St. Charles. She lives a half mile west of the fire in a trailer home. She found out about the fire when the sirens went off.

She found out it was time to leave when a law enforcement car went past. She couldn’t understand what was being said but she decided it had to be serious and it was time to leave.

Some decided to stay home,


but remained cautious

Dr. Jerry Berends of the St. Charles Veterinary Clinic, northeast of St. Charles, was outside the mandatory evacuation zone, as clouds drifted in the other direction.

His kennel was full, and both the Humane Society and Paws & Claws called to see if he needed assistance, but he declined.

"It would be difficult (to evacuate), but we could do it if we had to," Berends said.

Janet Campbell, a home-based day care provider for 18 years, lives a half mile from the fire site, near the golf course. She had five kids in her house, ages 7 months to 7 years.

She called the parents immediately, and they came to pick up their kids. Some were stopped at the city limits but were allowed through when they said where they were going, she said. She saw a lot of worried faces today.

The kids were not informed of the fire. They had no idea why their parents were picking them up early.

All the kids were removed by early afternoon, she said.


Evacuating them herself would have been difficult.

"I don’t have room for five car seats, but I would have taken them if I had to," she said.

"I’ve been lucky so far, the clouds have gone the other direction."

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