"It looked like a howitzer shell hit it."
That was how Hoonah police chief John Millan described the scene Thursday after an explosion and fire destroyed the commercial saw mill belonging to Icy Straits Lumber & Milling, Inc. on Long Island near Whitestone Community, the site of a former logging camp that is a 15-minute drive from Hoonah.
"I served in Iraq and that is what it looked like, like a howitzer had ripped that place apart. The building is completely destroyed," Millan said.
The mill, which employs about 10 workers, operated normally Wednesday.
There were no deaths or injuries and no one was believed to be in the building when the explosion occurred, Millan said.
Hoonah police lead dispatcher Joan Howell had just arrived at work when the first explosion occurred at 5:55 a.m.
"I could feel the blast," Howell said. "It was just a huge, massive explosion. I just thought 'What the heck was that.?' I was standing facing Long Island when it went off."
Howell dispatched emergency personnel to the scene as 911 calls began flooding the station.
Millan arrived to the scene 10 minutes later to see a huge black mushroom cloud still filling the air from a second explosion occurring 30 seconds after the initial blast.
Millan said the black smoke was indicative of a petrochemical fuel source. The remaining debris was completely engulfed in flames and stacks of lumber ready for shipment and sale were ablaze. Smaller explosions continued as emergency crews arrived.
Hoonah firefighters and EMS quickly arrived on the scene and battled to contain the fire from spreading to a mountain-sized pile of sawdust down an adjacent embankment.
US Forest Service firefighters arrived within hours to assist and the state Fire Marshall's office had investigators on the scene. However, they have yet to determine the cause of the fire.
"We don't know what it was," Susan Tyler, who co-owns the Icy Straits with husband Wesley, said. "We think that a fire started in the mill and when it got to oil, that was what caused the explosion. The sad part is we were just getting ready to start a yard in Juneau. Our life's savings were in that mill."
Additional fuel explosions remain a threat to the sawmill storage so firefighters are continuing to saturate the area with water. No other hazardous materials are believed to be on site except fuel oil and hydraulic fluid.
The loss of the mill, in operation for seven years, is a serious blow to the town, said Hoonah City Administrator Bob Prunella, since the lumber sales were used for building and construction projects locally and abroad.
"It looked like a war zone," Prunella said. "This is a loss of jobs we just couldn't afford to lose."
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