`Tens of Millions of Dollars and Several Years' to Restore 'Times-Dispatch' Plant

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By: Jim Rosenberg The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch operations chief has raised the estimated damage from Saturday's press fire from $10 million to "tens of millions of dollars" and describes work that will last years before the plant is restored to its condition before the fire.

The fire that temporarily disabled the Media General flagship's 15-year-old Hanover County production plant after destroying one of its three 36-couple Mitsubishi presses was preliminarily attributed to a mechanical failure at that press, causing newsprint and the oil-based ink to ignite.

Operations, production and facilities managers referred inquiries to the newspaper's designated spokeswoman, Product Innovation and Strategic Planning Director Frazier Millner. An exact cause of the fire was not readily apparent and examinations of computer data and the burned press continue, she said Tuesday night. "Our insurance company is also now on site ... and looking deeper into the cause, along with our team." Vendors and disaster-remediation contractor also have been assisting.

Two firefighters sustained minor injuries, but no newspaper personnel were injured in the fire.

Erupting as a fireball, according to the paper's own account, the Saturday-afternoon blaze occurred during advance printing of the Sunday classified section. It was not brought under control for over two hours. The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, a Media General sister paper, printed the Sunday classified section, while The Washington Post's Springfield, Va., plant printed news sections.

Though combustible, oily news inks are not ordinarily flammable by themselves, unlike, say, gravure inks that include volatile solvents. Industry sources familiar with the plant's presses speculate that a fireball could have been created if a cloud of paper dust, with or without ink mist, was ignited by an electrical spark or other source. What none could account for was the sustained nature and intensity of the fire -- sufficient to take out a press of considerable size.

"Generally, you don't hear about fires that consume an entire press," remarked one industry executive, not connected form the Times-Dispatch, who insisted on anonymity.

In an early report to management, Operations Vice President Sam Hightower cited "extensive damage" to the B press, and wrote that "it may not be salvageable."

Firefighters saved the press on each side of the one that burned, and Monday's news section was printed on those operable presses after they were restored to use. "We checked the presses and made sure they're in good working order," said Millner. With earlier deadlines in place, the two presses have since been able to print entire editions.

But the paper faces a long road back. Those two presses are rusting from water used to suppress the fire. The first job, wrote, Hightower, is reducing interior humidity to minimize further rusting - which he noted was also affecting the plant's new computer-to-press equipment and gripper conveyors. Water was reported still on the mailroom floor Monday, even though more than 12,000 gallons already had been pumped from the building.

Hightower said light machine oil is being applied daily to all metal surfaces on printing equipment to slow further corrosion. But it is only buying time: "The only way to stop this process is to completely disassemble every piece of equipment to its smallest component, treat it with a chemical neutralizer and reassemble it."

Meetings with contractors this week, Hightower added, would consider that task and the time required for it. Press-control workstations and any other computers exposed to smoke and soot will require similar treatment, he advised.

In fact, the entire 470,000-square-foot building, including all exposed and enclosed surfaces, will require cleaning before work on the equipment can commence, according to Hightower, in order to avoid re-contaminating that equipment. The paper also reported that four of the 10 automated guided vehicles that transport its newsprint rolls were out of commission.

Given the circumstances, Millner could report "We're in pretty good shape with two presses. We've gone from one edition to two editions." Noting some improvement every day, she said there are no plans to change the product and expected the early deadline will ease. Calling it "a day-to-day decision," Millner said, "We' fully anticipate getting back to normal and are pretty close."

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