UPDATE: Blaze hits coffee and tea plant

MOONACHIE – A Sara Lee coffee and tea plant that took all night for firefighters from 18 departments to extinguish could reopen tonight or tomorrow, a company spokesman said.

The plant is waiting on borough officials’ approval to reopen, spokesman Mike Cummins said. Only one-eighth of the 110,000-square-foot building was affected, he said.

“This isn’t a situation where we have to spend too much time rebuilding the plant,” he said. “We just need to get it cleaned up and we’ll be fully operational.”

The stubborn fire was finally stamped out this morning after starting sometime after 7:30 p.m. last night. It was the fourth fire at the Empire Boulevard plant in a year.

Twelve hours after the fire began last night, firefighters were still battling pockets of fire in the coffee beans and duct work at 7:30 a.m. this morning.

“We’ve been here all night,” said Moonachie Fire Chief Justin Derevyanik. “We never left.”

The fire began in the rear of the building, erupting in heavy flames and smoke that were not visible two hours after the blaze began, but fires persisted in ducts and coffee beans.

Three firefighters were hurt, two with smoke inhalation and one with an ankle injury. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

It was the fourth fire at the plant since October 2008. Fire officials blamed the company’s coffee roasting machines for the three previous fires, the most recent of which occurred on Aug. 19. No one was injured in the earlier blazes.

The latest blaze was the worst, Derevyanik said.

“This is the worst fire in my 15 years as chief,” he said.

Last night, about two dozen employees gathered on the sidewalk outside the plant after being evacuated, several of whom said they were not authorized to speak to the press. Plant Manager Michael Sobers said several machinists were at the plant last night and all got out safely.

He did not comment on the fire this morning.

“We’re waiting to get back into the building to understand what happened,” he said.

After the August blaze, Sara Lee spokewoman Sara Matheu told The Record that the company is “working collaboratively with the Fire Department to install state-of-the- art equipment that will help alleviate issues related to spark risk during equipment changes.”

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