Darling International fire destroys warehouse in Lynn Center

Sandy Hull
Osco and Orion firefighters work together to get a hose moved and working during a fire at Darling International, Inc., Lynn Center, Friday morning, Sept. 24.

    Employees of Darling International, Inc., Lynn Center, spent Friday night and Saturday, Sept. 24 and 25, working to clear debris after a massive fire destroyed the factory's 22,000 square foot warehouse Friday morning.

    At about 6:45 a.m. employees discovered smoke in a warehouse at the rendering operation that produces livestock feed, according to Keith Fulton, plant manager.

    Orion firefighters arrived to find flames coming through the roof and within three minutes, a third of the building was engulfed because of the strong winds that morning.

    Fulton said the fire started after hot feed combusted, igniting the building, and eventually getting out of control.

    On Friday evening and Saturday morning employees bulldozed and moved some of the debris from warehouse.

    “They hauled out 16 semi loads of steel from the warehouse over the weekend,” said Fulton. “There is still a lot there, but the rest is mixed in with the feed and has to be dug out and sorted through.” 

    The production line and other buildings were not damaged and employees were back at work grinding feed Monday afternoon according to Fulton.

    “We had to have some rewiring done, but we are up and running,” he stated. “We are hoping to have the whole mess cleaned up within three weeks and then the rebuilding process will begin when the structural engineering consultant will come and see what needs to be done.”

    Nearly 30 departments, including Orion, Osco-Andover and Cambridge, used more than two million gallons of water on Friday to put out the flames.

    "We're just hoping and praying at that point that the grinding and the production room did not get engulfed as well" says Fulton. "If that had happened, then it would be much more devastating to us. We're looking at being down for months compared to just a few days."

    The fire destroyed more than a million dollars in feed alone.

    The company hopes to have a new warehouse later this year, with construction possibly starting in as early as six weeks.

    Although the state fire marshal has not concluded his investigation, arson has been ruled out as the cause of the blaze. 

    For a period Friday morning, smoke from the blaze closed Interstate 74.

    MidAmerican and Ameren Energy technicians cut off utility service to the immediate area as Lynn Center filled with black smoke.

    School buses were rerouted and nearby residents were evacuated. Firefighters went door-to-door east of the plant to homes downwind of the fire, warning people about possible respiratory issues.

    The American Red Cross responded and the Orion Ladies Auxiliary provided food and drink for firefighters. As many as five ambulances also responded, but no one was injured.

    Orion Fire Chief Larry Anderson credited firefighters with saving valuable augering equipment on the north end of the building.

    "It was a long day. But (with) as many departments as we had here, it was a well-coordinated effort," he said. "Nobody got in anybody else's way."

    Tanker fire trucks made constant roundtrips for water from Andover Lake, Lake Lynwood and a hydrant in Orion, with Michlig Ag of Cambridge bringing a diesel tanker to the scene to refuel the fire trucks.    

    "This is the biggest turnout I've ever had with an Orion fire," said Anderson. "It's one of my top five big fires in 40 years.

    "And I've never had a water shuttle operation like this," he said, noting the aerial trucks shoot 2,400 gallons per minute. "Water was a precious commodity."

    More than a million gallons of water were used on the blaze according to Anderson, before firefighters and their equipment began leaving the scene between 1:30 and 2 p.m. Orion crews went home between 3 and 3:30 p.m.

    About 20 people work at the plant which has around-the-clock shifts, Fulton said. Product leaves the Lynn Center plant by rail and truck; the rail line escaped damage in the fire, he noted.

    Fulton said the facility was owned by National By-Products for many years before being bought by Irving, Texas-based Darling four years ago. Darling is the largest renderer in the U.S., Mr. Fulton said, with plants all over the country.