Fire Destroys Jackson County, Kentucky Factory

Fire destroyed a factory building housing Jackson County's largest private employer late Saturday night, leaving hundreds of the county's 13,500 residents without a place to earn a paycheck.

No one was injured in the blaze that gutted Mid-South Electronics, which manufactures refrigerator components. The fire began shortly after 11 p.m. Saturday, but low orange flames continued sending clouds of smoke into chilly air late last night. Firefighters said they expected to stay at the site throughout the night.

Despite the devastation, Mid-South Electronics Chairman and CEO Harold Weaver vowed to rebuild.

"We're going to do whatever it takes to get these people back to work," Weaver said in an interview last night from his hotel room in London. "We have a lot of hard work to do."

The plant employs 700.

Marvin Bowles of Tyner was one of 21 workers at the plant when the fire broke out.

"They started hollering and pointed toward where it was at," said Bowles, who's also a volunteer firefighter. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and headed toward the blaze, which was near battery chargers for the plant's forklifts.

But as Bowles, 21, neared the flames, he quickly realized they were beyond control.

He and his supervisor herded out the remaining employees, taking time to remove the plant's mainframe computer and the payroll records, and then watched as more than a day's worth of firefighting began for more than a half-dozen departments.

"The building was a total loss," said Bill Gay, emergency management coordinator for Jackson County. Gay said the cause of the blaze had not been determined as of yesterday afternoon.

Officials shut down nearby Ky. 30 and evacuated people who live within a mile of the plant. The road reopened and the residents returned after 6 p.m. yesterday. Gay said residents were cleared from the area because of possible chemical releases from the fire.

County officials speculated yesterday that the fire's biggest victim may be Jackson County's economy.

"At best, it's going to be a hard blow," said Jackson County Judge-Executive Tommy Slone.

Waiting to check equipment

The company won't know how long its workers will be idled until Mid-South officials are allowed into the building to inspect the remains, Weaver said. He has high hopes that a critical piece of equipment -- tooling for plastic injection molds -- will be salvageable.

"If we are able to retrieve those, that will be a much better situation for us," Weaver said. "If we have to get those made, then you're talking weeks and months."

The fire will also have a major impact on at least two other nearby companies, which supply Mid-South with many of the parts it assembles, he said.

Weaver met with some employees yesterday at the company's London office, but was able to give them few answers. The one thing he's certain about is health insurance. "We're going to have health insurance. These people have families and children," he said.

Other Annville residents spent yesterday worrying about their future.

Ronnie Abner, whose wife, sister, son and daughter-in-law all worked at the plant, feared that many employees wouldn't be able to make their house payments. "A lot of them cried and everything today," he said.

Slone said a small number of workers were already back on the job yesterday, setting up offices in Mid-South's second building in the Jackson County industrial park.

Managers were also looking into temporarily using a vacant building in the same area, he said. That building, Slone said, is only one-fifth the size of the facility that burned.

Weaver intends to meet today with the company's major customer, Frigidaire.

The company opened its operations in Annville in 1987 and quickly became one of the area's largest employers. An addition was built in the late 1990s, creating a total of 240,000 square feet of space.

It is a subsidiary of Mid-South Industries, which also operates facilities in Alabama.

The Annville plant assembles printed circuit boards and does plastic injection molding, both of which are part of systems that dispense ice and water in home refrigerators, Weaver said.

Jerry Weaver, who started the firm, grew up in the region and initially moved away to find a job, but returned years later to build the Mid-South plant in Annville.

"Some people thought I was crazy," Jerry Weaver said in a September 2004 Herald-Leader story. "Jackson County wasn't exactly paradise for a manufacturer or any other business-person. But I knew the place had potential, that there was a good work force there just waiting for jobs."

Other Mid-South fires

Since opening, Mid-South Electronics has grown from 125 workers to about 700.

The plant was visited in 1999 by President Bill Clinton as part of a six-state tour to stimulate business growth in the nation's most poverty-stricken areas.

During his visit, Clinton promoted his New Markets Initiative proposal, which built on his previous empowerment zone program. As a portion of one of only three rural empowerment zones in the country, many Jackson County businesses were granted federal aid and tax credits.

Mid-South's $6 million facility expansion was financed in part by a loan through the empowerment zone program.

Saturday night's fire is not the first at a Mid-South facility.

A February 1985 fire severely damaged a plant in Clay County that employed 250 people. That facility's replacement was the one that burned Saturday in Jackson County.

A smaller Mid-South factory in Clay County also caught fire, in January 2004. After that blaze, which was caused by a gas heater, the plant's 50 workers were put to work almost immediately at the Ann-ville facility, Harold Weaver said.

"This is just totally different," he said.