As a worst-case scenario played out in Superior on Thursday, it was met with a coordinated response.
An explosion and fire at the Husky Energy refinery, followed by a second bigger fire, led to a state of emergency and the evacuation of much of the city.
But no one died. Fewer than two dozen were injured. And the fire was contained.
"I think it's important to note that, while yesterday was a very scary day, it had the potential to be absolutely catastrophic," Superior Mayor Jim Paine told a crowd of reporters Friday morning. "And the difference between those two days is the hard work, skill and professionalism of hundreds and hundreds of people ... The team that really managed this crisis had prepared for this a long time and when the crisis came they had the cool head, they acted with sound judgment and, in many cases, downright courage."
The Superior Fire Department has spent the last five years training with the refinery's emergency response team. They knew about the petroleum products stored there and danger spots. Local businesses have pooled their resources, skills and information to increase industrial firefighting capability citywide.
"We all agree this wouldn't have gone the same way five years ago as it did today," said Superior Fire Chief Steve Panger.
Those who responded had all the foam, equipment and training they needed.
"You have to look at the potential 'what ifs' and you have to be ready for anything," Panger said. "We knew that we had to handle these situations, had to come up with answers for ourselves, because we're a long way from help."
He said industrial firefighters brought in to provide aid didn't arrive until midnight Thursday, hours after the fire was out.
As firefighters and first responders tackled the blaze, everyday heroes stepped up throughout the community.
Forty-one people took shelter at the DECC in Duluth; one stayed at Four Corners Elementary School, according to Tony Guerra, disaster program manager with the Northern Minnesota chapter of the American Red Cross. Students at the College of St. Scholastica shared their dorms with nearly 100 University of Wisconsin-Superior students.
Everyone ate well. Texas Roadhouse provided 180 steak dinners for firefighters on scene; First United Methodist Church in Duluth donated roast beef dinners to anyone who needed them; Blackwoods provided 800 meals to the UWS students. There were donated sandwiches from Super One Foods as well as coffee, donuts, snacks and fruit from Kwik Trip. Cases and cases of water flooded in. The Superior Walmart was closed, but a manager on site provided diapers, chapstick and other necessities as they were needed. Mills Fleet Farm offered items, as well.
"The generosity is just amazing," Guerra said. "When it hits the fan, borders fall."
Is this kind of response unusual?
"No, by gosh," Guerra said, it was very typical. "The Northland comes together."
An investigation into the cause of the fire was underway Monday, according to Husky Energy spokeswoman Kim Guttormson. Air and water monitoring was ongoing in connection with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. That included booms in Newton Creek to control potential runoff from water used to fight the fire. No fish kills had been reported.
Air quality around the site was improving Saturday. According to the EPA, they found no elevated levels of chemicals and particulate levels were at background levels.
The refinery was in production Thursday when the first explosion hit, although it was gearing up for maintenance in May. It began as a typical day, refinery manager Kollin Schade said.
The first explosion and fire began shortly after 10 a.m. Although it was quickly extinguished, asphalt that leaked from a tank ignited, starting a second fire.
"Right now, our intention is to go in and to do an assessment, clean it up, make the repairs, make the necessary corrections so this never happens again," Schade said.
A toll free helpline, (855) 527-5002, is being staffed 24 hours to assist with any questions or claims. Visit www.douglascountywi.org for updates.
"Husky remains committed to the future of the refinery, our employees and the community," Guttormson said.
"Our purpose in being here is to assess what more needs to be done," said Gov. Scott Walker after a walking tour of the perimeter of the refinery grounds Monday. He said the state and local officials are committed to working with refinery officials on their commitment to being in the area.
Paine thanked the Superior fire and police departments, the Husky Energy crew, federal and state resources, Douglas County, Minnesota, Duluth and community members who kept a cool head, didn't panic and did what they had to.
"There were a lot of people that the public likely will never meet; they will have no clue that they were a part of this response," Paine said. "But it took many, many hands in putting this together and making sure there were zero fatalities. In one of the largest disasters our community has ever seen, everybody's going home at the end of the day."
"We acted like a community yesterday and I couldn't be more proud of this city," Paine said.
Telegram editor Shelley Nelson contributed to this report.