In a small room at Heritage Inn & Suites in Garden City, Tyson officials and Gov. Laura Kelly met local leaders Wednesday afternoon to thank the community for its support, review state aid options and break down the next steps for the Holcomb beef processing plant damaged by fire last weekend.

Tyson Foods president and CEO Noel White and Tyson Fresh Meats president Steve Stouffer, who manages the company's beef plants, both addressed the room, White noting that the plant was “heavily damaged” but will be rebuilt.

“We got a whole basket full of lemons right now, right? There’s going to be some lemonade made out of this thing. And we’re going to make it stronger. We’re going to make it better,” Stouffer said. “One of the things we see right now is a unified front in this entire community. Because the question is today, ‘How do we take care of what immediately needs to be done?’ And we got a whole room full of doers right here.

“As catastrophic as it was, it could have been so much worse.”

Minimal but critical damage

On Friday night, a fire began in the box shop on the west end of the plant, the portion of the building used for harvest, where the animals are slaughtered. The fire burnt through the night before being contained by local firefighters Saturday morning.

Tyson announced Monday that the company would rebuild the plant in the same location and that full-time, active employees would be paid their normal rate for 40 hours each week, regardless of hours worked. Part-time employees will not receive a guaranteed weekly pay, but will be compensated for any work during the rebuilding process.

Stouffer said the fire began during a fire watch following routine welding-related maintenance on the west end of the building, which he said was done in compliance with fire codes and sanitation standard operating procedures. There was a flash, he said, and the fire broke out. The cause of that flash is still under assessment.

The area ultimately damaged by the fire is small but critical, Stouffer said.

Structurally, the damage is minimal, he said. There is about a 40- by 70-foot hole in the roof near the origin of the fire, the result of collapsed concrete T-beams. Conduit and piping systems in that area are also damaged. Pieces of equipment on the harvest floor are damaged too, he said, though it’s too early to tell how many or how badly. Stouffer said it’s also too early to determine a dollar amount for the damage.

But the bulk of the facility is in good shape, he said.

“There’s a lot of the plant that didn’t get directly affected by the heat. There’s a lot of smoke, a lot of soot — those types of things. But, as far as the majority of the plant, everything is still functional,” Stouffer said.

Among the more significant damage assessed so far are the downed electrical and hydraulics systems, Stouffer said. Without them, the rest of the plant can’t operate. The building is, on the whole, structurally sound, but it will take time to get it up and running, he said.

Because of this, the rebuilding process will take months, not weeks, Stouffer said.

Structural and electrical engineers are already at the plant, assessing damage, White said. Stouffer said for several weeks, Tyson employees will clean up the area affected by the fire. Soot will be cleaned and debris removed. Cranes, not yet on scene, will carry away large debris, including pieces of the roof, he said.

From there, the company will rebuild the roof, repair other damaged structural components and tend to the electrical and hydraulics systems, Stouffer said.

The cleanup process could reveal more details about the damage, Stouffer said. Until it’s done, he said, he did not know how long the plant would be down, but workers would take their time to avoid mistakes or injuries.

In the meantime, Stouffer said operations at the Finney County plant will be spread as needed across Tyson’s five other beef processing plants, operating in Amarillo, Texas; Lexington, Neb.; Dakota City, Neb.; Denison, Iowa; Joslin, Ill.; and Pasco, Wash.

Already, he said, employees at the Lexington, Neb., plant were asking how they could help Finney County.

An update on aid

Kelly addressed local leaders, adding her thanks and turning the conversation to the state’s efforts to help.

She thanked first responders and Tyson for a quick evacuation and response that resulted in no injuries, and applauded Tyson for paying their full-time employees during the rebuilding process.

“Tyson is to be commended for its pledge to continue paying its workers affected by the temporary closure of the plant, and it’s very good to hear that you intend to repair the damage and reopen. I know that folks around this area were very concerned,” Kelly said.

The plant’s temporary shutdown will affect many partners in the beef industry that fuels western Kansas, she said, including cattle producers, equipment manufacturers, beef vendors and transportation providers.

Kelly said Secretary of Commerce David Toland and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam met Saturday with representatives from Tyson, local government and the Finney County Economic Development Corp. to assess how the state could help the situation, and that Secretary of Labor Delia Garcia and other state officials have been offering support to other industries affected by the fire.

She said the three secretaries are ready and willing to help Tyson employees and other industries. Members of her administration are monitoring falling cattle prices and have communicated with Sen. Jerry Moran to see what can be done on a federal level, such as collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said.

She said her office and the Kansas state legislature were present and ready to help.

“Much of the growth in this part of the state has stemmed from the meatpacking industry, which comprises the largest share of the food processing industry in the state,” Kelly said. “I want to make sure everybody, both Tyson and local officials, don’t hesitate to call if there’s something that we can do to help. We’re ready to help in any way we can.”

During their public statements, Kelly, Stouffer and White all thanked the Finney County community, from first responders to local leaders to Tyson managers working the night of the fire. Stouffer held up one of many buttons passed out to locals over the past week reading “We stand with Tyson.”

“That’s pretty darn cool in my book,” he told community leaders. “So, thank you very much for all of the things you’ve done for us. And I’m here to tell you ... we’re not leaving.”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.