BAY DE VERDE, N.L. — The scenic Newfoundland town of Bay de Verde, pop. 398, soars in size when its massive fish plant is at full steam. The Quinlan Brothers plant employs 700 people at peak, processing crab, shrimp and groundfish, and on Monday the sprawling place was just getting ramped up.
Thanakit Ruangcharoen was among 43 foreign workers from Thailand starting seasonal work there Tuesday. On Monday, though, he was among the many people, Thais and locals both, who stood and watched the plant burn to the ground.
"We are very concerned," said Ruangcharoen, 30, who said cash earned every summer is vital to those workers and their families back in Thailand.
Bay de Verde declared a state of emergency Monday, forcing out hundreds of residents as five separate fire departments tackled the blaze with little success. But the real trouble may just be starting for a town clinging to Newfoundland's eastern edge.
"We are looking at a tremendous loss," said Gerard Murphy, mayor of Bay de Verde, who invoked the emergency plan sometime after 6 a.m., after he saw the plant engulfed in black smoke and flames after being awoken by a firefighter.
"At first glance I said, 'It's going to be a disaster."
Murphy said about 60 residents of Bay de Verde work at the plant, but people travel from nearby communities and across the province for jobs there.
"By this time next week, it would have been in full force with 700 workers employed," said Wanda Riggs, 49, who grew up in Bay de Verde and has worked at the plant for more than 30 years. "So it's very, very devastating here."
As she watched the plant burn to the ground from her home atop a hill above the harbour, Riggs said the loss could mean the end of both her and her husband's incomes, and many of her relatives also work at the plant.
"It's not only going to affect the people employed at the plant — it's going to affect stores, garages," she said. "Everything was centred around employment at the plant."
Jessica Doyle, 26, said she has worked at the plant on and off since she was a teenager. Many local residents recently laid off from well-paid jobs in Alberta's oil sector had hoped to find work there this summer, she said.
"And now this."
Natasha Carvalhal, 27, is one of them. She worked in Lloydminster, Alta., for the last nine years but is back home in Bay de Verde since oil prices crashed.
"I just can't believe this," she said as the last of the plant burned behind her.
"Now I don't know what I'm going to do."
Town clerk Tara North said the fire appeared to start in the west end of the long building that stretches along the harbour's shoreline, and spread to the other end.
"The building is basically gone," she said, adding that it wasn't clear what caused the fire.
The RCMP said there were no reports of injuries. No one from Quinlan Brothers was available for comment.
There were concerns a large ammonia tank on the site could further fuel the fire, but Murphy said much of its contents had been released into the air.
Murphy said people who were forced out of their homes were being housed at the local school and Lions club, as well as in the neighbouring community of Old Perlican.
Wendy Tizzard, principal of nearby Tricon Elementary School, said about 70 people forced from their homes are now staying there.
Local residents have brought food and juice, and there have been many offers of help — including from outside the province, she said.
— With files from Alison Auld in Halifax
Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press
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