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Cambria volunteer firefighters recount deadly Didion corn mill explosion

Posted at 10:38 PM, Jun 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-12 23:38:19-04

The small town of Cambria has an all-volunteer fire department and thought the 23 firefighters work full-time jobs they are on call 24 hours a day for emergencies, including the night of the deadly explosion at the Didion Milling plant.

On May 31, the emergency call about the explosion at the plant woke the volunteer firefighters out of bed. Many of them know someone who works at the plant. All of them rushed to the scene without question, and what they saw that night, they'll never be able to forget.

A collapsed building, raging fire, and scared, injured workers trying to run to safety.

"It was like entering something out of a movie or a video game," said Cambria Fire Chief Cody Doucette. "It's something you never expect to see. Then, there it is, right in front of your face. So much destruction."

"As we arrived we could see workers disoriented, walking at us through the haze, fog and smoke," said Assistant Fire Chief Ryan Hart.

Cambria's volunteer firefighters had never responded to a scene so big, or so deadly. Four Didion employees lost their lives in the explosion, and nearly a dozen were injured.

"I saw some people who needed help, and I just got to work," Hart said.

"Not only are you thinking of the people that are involved and possibly hurt, but you are also constantly thinking about keeping your people safe." Doucette said. "The magnitude of the scene doesn't hit you right away, because you're in the zone. Your adrenaline is going."

But the reality of what you witnesses slowly creeps in.

"You try to put it in the back of your mind because you have a job to do," Doucette said.

"I didn't quite have a complete picture of how bad it was going to be," Hart adds.

Crisis counselors have been made available to the volunteer firefighters.

"It's been tough because the community is hurting," Doucette said. "This is our home. We do what we do because we want to help people, and right now, everyone is hurting. People lost loved ones. People lost their place of work.

But that pain is turning into action. People have been stopping by the fire station with food, and to say thank you.

"It's been amazing to see how this community has responded and come together," Doucette said. 

A fire department and town, though small in size, are proving so big in heart.

Cambria's volunteer fire department wants to thank all of the other departments who helped on the night of the explosion. They also want to stress the need for more firefighters. Many small towns in Wisconsin are seeing a decline in the number of people willing to volunteer their time.

Twelve days after the deadly explosion at Didion Milling in Cambria, fires are still sparking at the site. Firefighters were called to put out a small fire in the rubble Sunday night. There's still no word on what caused the explosion at the plant.