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Published July 09, 2009, 12:00 AM

Wisconsin meatpacking plant fire out

MILWAUKEE — The stubborn fire that gutted part of a sprawling meatpacking plant in suburban Milwaukee is finally out.

By: James A. Carlson , Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — The stubborn fire that gutted part of a sprawling meatpacking plant in suburban Milwaukee is finally out.

That declaration came Wednesday afternoon as the estimate of damage from the 2½-day fire soared to $50 million or more.

Despite that, company officials offered hope that portions of the Patrick Cudahy Inc. plant will be rebuilt, saving one of the area’s major employers.

Fire officials said it started Sunday night in one of the plant’s oldest buildings, in a space below the roof but above the fourth floor and the building’s sprinkler system. That allowed the fire to burn in areas inaccessible to firefighters and the millions of gallons of water poured on the blaze until the roof and floors collapsed.

Heavy smoke and fears of toxic fumes caused authorities to order a 12-hour evacuation of the surrounding area Monday. Air quality tests that evening showed no danger, and people were allowed to return.

It took all day Tuesday and until 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before the city declared the fire extinguished.

Patrick Cudahy President William Otis said later Wednesday that the damage could total more than $50 million, based on the value of lost equipment and supplies as well as damaged structures. But he said it’s just a “ballpark figure” until the more than 1 million-square-foot plant can be assessed.

“It could be in excess of $50 million,” he said. “We don’t know.”

If all goes well, production in some unaffected areas could restart next week, Otis said. Eventually,

75 percent to 80 percent of the plant’s 1,400 production workers could get their jobs back, he said.

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