BELFAST — A massive fire destroyed the Penobscot McCrumb potato processing plant on the banks of the Passagassawakeag River last week, displacing 138 workers and disrupting schools and traffic. While authorities continue to investigate at the scene, the community is rallying to support the employees who suddenly are out of work.
In the latest community effort to be announced, the Steel Guardians motorcycle club will hold a spaghetti supper and silent auction to benefit employees and their families Friday, April 15, at 5 p.m. at Belfast Area High School.
Club president Chris Bowles said many area businesses have donated items for a silent auction, and a 50/50 raffle is also planned. The club is working with the city, he said, and all proceeds will go to Belfast’s Keep the Faith Fund, which has been collecting donations for McCrum employees since Thursday, March 24, while the fire was still raging at the plant at 28 Pierce St.
City Manager Erin Herbig announced that afternoon that the City Council had approved taking money from the fund to provide $100 Hannaford Supermarket gift cards to the employees, and the community can donate to the fund at gofund.me/5c5ffcfc. By Tuesday afternoon, March 29, 317 donors had contributed $29,633 toward a $50,000 goal to help the employees with rent relief and other assistance.
All proceeds from the spaghetti supper also will go to the Keep the Faith Fund, Bowles said. To donate food or silent auction items, contact Bowles at 858-5388 or visit the Facebook page for the event, titled Guardians for Belfast — Dinner for McCrum at facebook.com/events/674436877202721.
Waldo County’s state legislative delegation issued a statement Tuesday afternoon, pledging their help to the plant’s displaced employees and their families. Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast; Rep. Scott Cuddy, D-Winterport; Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast; Rep. Sherman Hutchins, R-Penobscot; Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox; and Rep. Paige Zeigler, D-Montville, can be reached at 287-1515 (Curry), 287-1430 (Cuddy, Dodge and Zeigler), and 287-1440 (Kinney and Hutchins).
No dollar figure for the loss is available as yet; a call to the McCrum home office in Mars Hill was not returned by press time. Shannon Moss of the Maine Department of Public Safety said Monday afternoon that the investigation was still active. The fire, which is believed to have started in one of the plant’s large fryolators, leveled the entire structure.
Governor pledges help
Gov. Janet Mills visited the scene Thursday afternoon and, with CEO Jay McCrum, spoke with reporters.
McCrum expressed gratitude for the support the company has received in the wake of the fire, calling Belfast Fire Chief Patrick Richards “phenomenal,” and praising the efforts of all the firefighters who worked through the early morning hours and all day to battle the blaze.
He said the company was a six-generation family firm and he hoped to come back from the disaster. The company is the only small, family-owned potato processor in the United States, he said. It gets all its potatoes from Maine growers. McCrum said he had already met with his business partners and a team would come in this week to assess the situation and decide how to proceed.
Mills told how her grandfather had been a potato farmer, adding that it was important to keep the processing of the state’s crop in Maine. She pledged to help McCrum come back from the loss with transitional funding, as well as dispatching a Rapid Response Team from the Department of Labor to assist employees.
“We want them (McCrum) to stay here,” she said.
According to a press release from the governor’s office the day of the fire, the Maine Department of Labor has connected with employees and was to be onsite at Workforce Solutions/Goodwill Workforce Services at 15 Starrett Drive, Suite F, in Belfast all this week from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1 to 4:30 p.m., in addition to providing virtual sessions. Workforce Solutions can be contacted at 930-7047. Affected workers may also reach out to the CareerCenter for assistance, at 623-7981.
Toxic fumes threat averted
Waldo County Dispatch received a call about the fire at 2 a.m. and immediately called out the Belfast Fire Department. Its first unit, Tanker 5, arrived at the scene at 2:13 a.m.
Speaking to a reporter at the scene in those early morning hours, McCrum said he believed the fire had started in the fry room. He got a call from workers who initially thought they had it under control. McCrum said he was on his way to the plant when he learned the fire had spread into one of the exhaust stacks.
The state Fire Marshal’s Office was on the scene from about 3 a.m. on, according to Moss.
No one was injured in the fire, and the quick actions of first responders prevented toxic chemicals from leaking into the atmosphere. Stored on the property were 12,000 pounds of ammonia, tanks of propane and a couple of hundred pounds of sulfuric acid, according to Dale Rowley, director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency, reported in a Bangor Daily News story.
As a precaution, Regional School Unit 71 canceled school, and residents of Harbor Hill, across the river from the raging fire, were evacuated to Troy Howard Middle School, well away from the danger zone. About 8 a.m. police closed Route 1 from its junction with Route 3 across the bridge to East Belfast, and residents were urged to shelter in place.
A plume of smoke from the fire was visible for miles above the horizon. Richards declared the blaze under control just before 10 a.m. The sheltering order was lifted and the bridge was reopened about 20 minutes later.
Fire departments from Belmont, Camden, Liberty, Lincolnville, Montville, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Waldo and West Frankfort rendered mutual aid at the scene and around the area, where side streets were closed to limit access.
Searsport Police assisted with detouring traffic and the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office assisted with road closures in the vicinity of the fire.
Firefighters continued to monitor the scene over the weekend.
Potato growers since 1886
The McCrum family has been growing potatoes in Aroostook County since 1886. The business expanded into Belfast in 2004 with its purchase of Penobscot Frozen Foods. This acquisition made the company one of the largest suppliers of specialty potato products in North America, according to a 2015 article in Produce Processing, an industry trade publication. A new facility in Washburn started processing potatoes in late June 2020.