Staff stuck together like family after fire burned down Sentinel

Then-Sentinel Publisher Ken Johnson meets with fire officials and other Sentinel employees in the aftermath of the April 9, 1974, fire. The Daily Sentinel never missed an issue, even as the paper’s press was destroyed in the fire.



It was around midnight April 9, 1974. “They’re burning us to the ground,” Chan Edmonds said when I sleepily answered my hotel phone.

“WHAT?”

“A big fire spreading from Mesa Feed burned through into the press room. It’s pretty well gone and they don’t know if they can even save anything. Conoco (the gasoline storage tanks on Ninth Street) could blow.”

My input was simple. “Is everyone okay? What have you done to get tomorrow’s paper going?”

It has been 40 years since that horrendous fire spread from the Mesa Feed mill towers and destroyed The Daily Sentinel’s newsprint storage and pressroom, fueled by high winds and downed electric transformers.

By 2 a.m. Wednesday, the pressroom roof had fallen, crumpled by the inferno, onto three lines of newspaper presses. Expensive newsprint rolls still steamed and smoldered.

We had bought that big city-style press to let us grow from 21,000 subscribers up to the 75,000 we expected as oil from shale helped bring America “energy independence.”

I was in the Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City, having spent the evening hosting some Utah leaders and bankers at dinner. Also, there was a Chamber of Commerce-Club 20-Colorado state-Sentinel project trying to sell Hollywood figures on the notion that our area was a splendid location for shooting movies. 

Our effort was put on indefinite hold by the call from Chan Edmonds, the Sentinel’s general manager. We knew our world had changed dramatically.

Fire Chief R.T. Mantlo had ordered everyone to “stay out of the Sentinel building.” It was too close to the runaway flames. Credit manager Fred Martin was spraying the Mesa Feed side of our office building with a garden hose.

I asked Chan to call Harold Daniels, Home Loan president. He was one of our board members and our insurance guy.

For the next two hours I made phone calls, leaving messages on answering machines in most cases: to the Goss and Harris press companies, other equipment vendors and Walt Mikas, our newsprint rep for Alberni Paper Co.

The call to Jared Morse in Denver, our longtime friend and architect, awakened him. The wheels toward rebuilding the Sentinel began turning.

A Frontier flight put me at the Sentinel about 10 a.m. Thursday. I was gratified to see the office portion was unscathed outside. A quick look at steaming and still-smoldering piles of valuable newsprint rolls and some bent and twisted iron that had been our presses confirmed the wound. The press plant and everything in it was a loss, including our nearly-new Harris 1650 press for which we still owed $700,000.

Inside the office portion of the plant we had no electricity and sticky smoke had blackened every surface. The smoky odor brought tears to your eyes. Regardless, we intended to be operating there as soon as power could be brought in.

A vacant rental space on Main Street in front of the Winery already housed our news and ad staffs. Chan had moved some IBM electric typewriters there for the reporters and editors to use.

We printed Wednesday’s “disaster edition” in Glenwood Springs, using our own press crews. You can imagine the logistics involved in getting the pages ready for the press, let alone getting the bundles of papers back to Grand Junction for our Delta-Montrose truck and all our carriers in the Grand Valley.

By Wednesday morning we had phones and electricity and were back in action. By Thursday all the typesetting equipment was running again so the next editions looked a whole lot better.

The staff was a family. Everyone pitched in and helped move us forward as we cleaned up, rebuilt and put out the daily papers.

Problems?

Some of our advertisers, believing we might fail, decided to delay paying their bills. That dented cash flow badly for months. Worse, a number of advertisers rushed to get decent space on radio and TV, denting our future cash flow.

The junk dealers wanted to buy our ruined newsprint, over $500,000 worth, for about $20,000. We turned them down, then used auto body grinders and chainsaws to cut away the ruined portions of the rolls, saving over half of the inventory.

We sent some of that, plus a new truckload to Glenwood where our crews printed the Sentinel, plus the Glenwood Post, until we were back in our own plant. Forty-five days from the night of the fire we had our new building and press in place.

It was, and still is, a speed record for both those projects. As Chan observed years later, “We didn’t know it couldn’t be done.”

Architect Morse picked fireproof concrete “twin T” sections for the building and even got the Salt Lake City concrete guys to pour them on Easter Sunday.

Another friend, the vice president of the Harris press company, found us a press on the East Coast docks. It was headed to the Philippines but the buyer hadn’t paid yet. We snagged it instantly!

It came on eight trucks, in a sequence that let the installers put it together as the building went up around them. No one could find the truck with the last unit because the driver had diverted to upstate New York for a week with his special girlfriend — the one his wife didn’t know about.

The building was going up in 12-foot-wide units, one at a time as the panels arrived from Utah. The press installers built the press in rhythm with each roof unit as it was completed. When the final building section went in place the fully assembled press was checked out and ready to roll.

We needed to get out of Glenwood and onto our own equipment as quickly as possible. In addition to other costs, the Glenwood Post charged us more than $2,000 a day to use its press.

On May 24, press foreman Ray McKissen asked for one more day to fine-tune the press. Instead, Chan said “let’s go now” and pushed ‘start.’

Everything worked.

Perhaps the biggest reason we lost the press plant involved a disconnected fire hydrant. After hooking their hoses to the city fire hydrant just across Third Avenue from the press room, the firemen signaled McKissen to heave open the big garage door leading into the entry hall to the press room. It was full of newsprint rolls stacked three high, and burning embers blown onto the roof had dropped onto the paper.

The door opened and the air rushed in, triggering the smoldering embers to balloon into flame. The firemen discovered too late that the fire hydrant had no water. It was not connected to the city main.

The aftermath of the fire was a financial tightrope. We had owed about $1.5 million at the time of the fire. Our after-insurance fire losses were more than $3.5 million. The following April we still owed two local banks nearly that much.

As the following years became more frenzied I didn’t get back to the task of selling the valley as a Hollywood film location.

The Sentinel team did a great job growing the paper in every regard through those years, pushing us past 30,000 paid subscribers. The Sentinel prospered as it grew, all the while making sure it continued to be “the Voice of the Sunset Slope.” 

But no one who was there on April 9, 40 years ago, has ever forgotten it.


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