Wind-whipped 10-alarm fire destroyed iconic Marcal paper plant in New Jersey

"All of the sudden the wind started really blazing," said the police chief in Elmwood Park, N.J. "The fire just took off from there."
Image: Aftermath of Marcal Paper Mills factory fire
The aftermath of Marcal fire in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, on January 31, 2019.

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By Phil Helsel

A massive fire at a Marcal paper plant that broke out at around 5 p.m. Wednesday amid bitterly cold temperatures gripping large parts of the Midwest and Northeast swelled to 10 alarms.

Investigators haven't immediately noticed anything suspicious about the huge, wind-whipped blaze that devastated the factory building in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, that had an iconic sign which served as a beacon for residents in that region of the state.

"There’s nothing at this point to lead us to believe there’s anything suspicious, but that remains to be seen," Elmwood Park Police Chief Michael Foligno said Thursday.

The fire was under control at around 2 a.m. and demolition teams were set to go in to allow firefighters to get in and look for hot spots and eventually clear the way for investigators to look for the cause, Foligno said. The fire is believed to have begun in a warehouse that houses large rolls of paper, he said.

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He said fires are not uncommon there and the plant has its own fire brigade, and when he arrived he wasn't overly concerned.

"All of the sudden the wind started really blazing," Foligno said. "The fire just took off from there." Around 90 percent of the footprint of the facility where the fire started was damaged, he said.

"That's an iconic building. You'll see a lot of people talking about coming home from a long trip and seeing the Marcal sign lit, letting you know you’re home," Foligno said. He called the impact of the fire "devastating," and said it was a main hub for employment for a lot of people for many years.

New Jersey Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, whose district includes Elmwood Park, said in a statement Wednesday night that like many, he's passed the Marcal plant all his life.

"Even as a child, when I didn't know what the building was, I always knew I was close to home when I saw the illuminated MARCAL sign from Route 80," he said.

None of the nearly 200 employees working at the Marcal plant at the time of the fire were injured, Rob Baron, president and CEO of Soundview Paper Company, which owns the facility, said Wednesday night.

"We are are aiming to have financial support for Marcal's associates secured in the coming days," Baron said in a statement Thursday. "We do not know today what the long-term future of our company will be," he said, but added the company would make supporting employees a top priority.

Foligno said that the fact no injuries have been reported is "amazing, with a fire of that magnitude, with the weather conditions as they are and were.”

"Somebody’s looking out for us here," he said.