CANTON, N.C. (From news reports) -- An early morning fire Monday, Sept. 21, at the Evergreen Packaging paper mill has left two contract workers dead, according to a press release from Evergreen.
Mill manager Wally McDonald released a statement through Haywood County the afternoon of Sept. 21 saying the "fire has been extinguished and there is no further threat of it spreading or additional damage to infrastructure."
The fire started at 5:15 a.m. in a tank that was under repair as part of a maintenance outage, and the local fire department came and quickly extinguished the blaze, McDonald said.
"It is with great sadness that we confirm two contractors involved in the tank repairs died as a result of the fire," McDonald said. "Their families have been notified and have our deepest sympathy and support during this very difficult time."
McDonald said an investigation into the fire's cause has begun, and the mill is "cooperating fully with the local police, fire department, and regulatory agencies."
"We appreciate the bravery and support of our local emergency response personnel," McDonald said.
Dolores Quesenberry, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Commerce confirmed that the department's "Occupational Safety and Health Division is investigating" the Sept. 21 incident.
McDonald said in a morning press release Sept. 21 that the sprawling mill, which takes up much of downtown Canton, "had a fire in the process vessel.
"We have been working with the fire department to first and foremost ensure people are protected, second contain the fire, and third, investigate the cause," McDonald said.
The mill, which takes up 200 acres inside the town limits, employs about 1,000 people and is the largest industrial employer in Haywood County, according to the company website.
Operations at the mill date to 1908, when Champion Fibre Co. sited the facility on the Pigeon River. It has provided above-average wages to generations of local families, but the mill also is well known for its pungent smell and its pollution of the Pigeon River.
The Canton Mill houses four paper and paperboard machines, producing a variety of packaging for liquid products such as orange juice, as well as cup stock and commercial paper.
"We will share updates and information as appropriate, but wish to respect the privacy and difficult circumstances for the families of the contractors who lost their lives," McDonald said.
Haywood County Emergency Medical Services Department declined to release any information about the fire, referring questions to the town of Canton and Haywood County.
According to the North Carolina Department of Labor, the state had 59 workplace fatalities in the 2020 fiscal year, which ran from October-August 2020. Of those, 23 were in construction and 11 in manufacturing.
The Asheville District office, which covers the western part of the state, recorded five fatalities in that time period.
The "Occupational Fatality Inspection Review" listed 54 fatalities in 2019, with 18 deaths in construction and nine in manufacturing. The numbers for 2018 totaled 49 fatalities, with 24 in construction and seven in manufacturing.
The Asheville office recorded five occupational fatalities in each of those fiscal years.
The N.C. Department of Labor website notes investigations at the Occupational Safety and Health Division are triggered by a worker's death, hospitalization of a worker, amputation or the loss of an eye. Employers must notify the N.C. Department of Labor within eight hours of any work-related fatality or inpatient hospitalizations, as well as amputations or loss of an eye.