Bonduelle CEO Daniel Vielfaure says the company will rebuild its heavily damaged food-processing plant in Tecumseh, Ont. — if part of the plant is salvageable.
Vielfaure flew in from Quebec and made the announcement at a news conference Friday.
Bonduelle’s fruit and vegetable processing facility in Tecumseh, east of Windsor, caught fire at 2 a.m. ET Friday.
Vielfaure said 200 current employees and another 450 seasonal employees will be affected. He also said $21 million worth of crops in fields still need picking.
Vielfaure said firefighters told him the production side of the plant, including the labelling division, has been saved.
"Because of the good work of the firemen, if we did save our production facility, obviously, we'll do everything in our power to put it back up as quick as possible," he said.
It wasn't made clear what would happen if the production area had been damaged or destroyed.
Nearly 5.5 million kilograms — or 12 million pounds — of frozen vegetables and unpacked goods were destroyed in the fire.
Farmers are already diverting peas to other Bonduelle plants in Ontario in an effort to harvest and produce as much as possible.
The company has seven plants in Canada, including two in Ontario.
If the crops can’t be processed, Bonduelle will still pay for the farmers’ crops.
Tecumseh Mayor Gary McNamara said he is confident the community and Bonduelle will rise up and rebuild.
He also said he has already spoken to the province about financial assistance for Bonduelle.
The plant was originally owned by Green Giant, and has changed many hands since Bonduelle took it over.
McNamara said the plant employs up to 700 people during peak production and is worth $40 million annually to the town. Another 450 farming families across Ontario supply the plant with fruits and vegetables.
McNamara said it is currently processing peas, but also processes carrots, corn, rice and meal packs.
"For years and years, they provided a lot of good jobs for our community. We’re devastated by the loss," McNamara said. "It's been here 80 years, providing good jobs for our community and certainly the region.
"This is devastating for the full-time employee. And we’re just on the upswing of the co-packing right now. They’re gearing up for full production."
Fire marshal to investigate
Although Tecumseh Fire Rescue Service said the fire was contained midday Friday, firefighters planned to battle the blaze into the evening.
Officials said fire crews need to put out hot spots from the inside, but they're holding off because of concerns walls may collapse.
Heavy equipment was called in to begin knocking down walls from the outside.
Four municipalities, including Windsor, fought the massive fire and the Office of the Fire Marshal has been called in to investigate.
The fire, which caused a small ammonia leak at the plant, led to the mayor calling a local state of emergency. There was also a mandatory evacuation of about 1,300 homes within a one-kilometre radius of the plant.
The evacuation order and local state of emergency were lifted at 1 p.m. ET Friday.
McNamara was concerned about the more than 2,250 kilograms (5,000 pounds) of ammonia on site.
There was a leak, but Tecumseh Fire Rescue Service said it was contained.
Frank Pitre, who lives in the area that had been evacuated, heard sirens at 2 a.m. and went outside to find flames more than three metres high.
Pitre said he wasn't scared until he heard about the ammonia tanks and small leak. That's when he left the area.
Air, water monitored
Air monitoring is underway at the plant and will continue throughout the day, the Tecumseh Fire Department said.
Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment is monitoring water runoff, and Windsor Fire and Rescue’s hazardous material team is monitoring air quality from seven spots.
Even though workers, including Gabrielle Blanchette, were in the factory at the time of the fire, no injuries were reported.
“It’s like seeing money burn and it doesn’t feel right," Blanchette said. "The Bonduelle staff, the supervisors, did a good job at keeping us safe. At first, I thought it was contained. But around 6:30 a.m., it was huge, insane."
At least 20 trucks were on scene at the height of the fire. Black smoke could be seen across the area, from as far away as west Windsor.
Fire officials said the roof collapsed one hour into fighting the fire. Damage is extensive.
'It's like seeing money burn and it doesn't feel right.' - Gabrielle Blanchette, Bonduelle employee
McNamara said more than 200,000 square feet, including the dry goods warehouse and freezer area, are affected by the fire, which according to fire officials appears to have started in the freezer section of the plant.
They initially thought the cause was linked to the electrical system, but now they're not certain about that.
Kathy Arigan, who works in the plant's freezer, was scheduled to work at 6 a.m. Friday, but received a call telling her all shifts were cancelled.
She came to the plant anyway.
“I needed to see the reality of this place. When you work here, you become a family. And when something happens, you want to support them however you can,” she said.
Arigan described the scene as tragic and devastating.
“I truly do hope they can and do rebuild because this is a great facility, a great facility to work at,” she said.
Not 1st fire at plant
Maureen Facca, a nearby resident, watched the plant burn for the second time in her life.
She was a child when the plant went up in flames in the 1970s.
Green Giant owned the plant when it burned on Oct. 3, 1973. The fire caused $10,000,000 in damages, according to the Tecumseh Fire Department.
"I can’t believe it’s happening for a second time. It’s a large employer in the community and it’s important," Facca said. "Hopefully they stay in the community and can rebuild. You always know someone that’s working there."
Bonduelle old green giant in Tecumseh on fire pic.twitter.com/H5fMbNQ8qd— Nancy Desjardins (@NancyLynnMarie1) July 18, 2014
Bonduelle on fire pic.twitter.com/Ic3RU5mSvT— Steve Ilijanich (@silijanich) July 18, 2014
Bye bye bonduelle :( pic.twitter.com/mt7RVcFm3s— Andrea Gerrard (@agerrard15) July 18, 2014