MUSKOGEE — Cathy Terrell drove to the Georgia-Pacific mill Tuesday morning to see the damage.
While there, she blotted a tear with a napkin.
Terrell, who worked there for 21 years before retiring, said seeing the heavily damaged mill broke her heart. She served in many roles at the plant, doing what was asked of her, she said. She said Muskogee’s having the plant enabled many to better their lives.
“That’s my home away from home,” Terrell said. “People work hard in there to have nice things.”
One person was hospitalized, and another four people were treated for injuries after an explosion and massive fire at the plant, Muskogee’s largest private employer.
Georgia-Pacific officials shuttered the Muskogee plant on Tuesday to all but emergency response crews.
Tom Strother, the mill’s public affairs manager, said emergency responders from the plant and the Muskogee Fire Department continued monitoring hot spots at the site, 4901 Chandler Road.
“Operations were shut down for Tuesday,” Strother said. “We wouldn’t ask anybody to walk back into a situation that’s unsafe.”
A major fire started in the plant, which manufactures tissues, paper towels and napkins, around 9:40 p.m. Monday. Muskogee Fire Chief Mike O’Dell said a preliminary investigation indicated that a propane-powered forklift caught fire in the facility.
Georgia Pacific’s emergency response team attempted to extinguish the forklift but abandoned the effort in favor of evacuation after finding the lift’s propane tank getting too hot. O’Dell said the explosion occurred after the evacuation. About 65 employees had been in the portion of the plant where the fire began.
Fire Department officials sounded the “general alarm” that night, meaning all off-duty personnel were called in to fight the fire. All of the department’s fire engines were dispatched to the plant.
Fire trucks remained at the scene for much of Tuesday as the building still smoldered. Strother said that until the fire’s hot spots are extinguished, Georgia-Pacific crews will be unable to assess the extent of the damage.
O’Dell said rolls of paper were still burning and would kick up flames “like a campfire” when the wind blew. That area remained inaccessible to firefighters. O’Dell said that at that point, with the fire contained to a single building, it was more prudent to observe than to continue to attack the blaze. Georgia-Pacific’s fire brigade remained to continue the observation.
The plant employs about 800 people. It directly and indirectly affects the employment of about 3,000 people, said Muskogee Port Authority Director of Industrial Development Marie Synar.
The Georgia-Pacific Mill is the largest private employer in the city. Its job impact on the city is exceeded only by two federal agencies.
Georgia-Pacific employs about 910 people among its two facilities in the state, with the other located in southwestern Oklahoma. About $80 million is paid out in direct wages and benefits to its Oklahoma employees, according to the company’s website. The Atlanta-based company has invested approximately $273 million since 2013.
“My thoughts and prayers are with Georgia-Pacific and the employees and families that may be impacted by this fire,” Synar said. “We have been in contact with local representatives and are grateful to hear no employees have been seriously injured.”
Synar said the port authority “will continue to monitor the impact of the damage” to the mill’s operation and provide assistance where needed.