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Recovery continues after explosion, fire rocks Didion Milling in Cambria
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Recovery continues after explosion, fire rocks Didion Milling in Cambria

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CAMBRIA – Recovery crews are searching through a mountain of debris for two missing employees after the fatal explosion Wednesday night at Didion Milling in Cambria.

Columbia County sheriff's officials say the explosion and fire at the Didion Milling Plant killed at least one person and injured about a dozen others.

The blast was reported around 11 p.m. Wednesday. Sheriff Dennis Richards says 16 employees were working at the time, and two remained unaccounted for on Thursday morning.

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Hospitals in southern Wisconsin are treating at least 10 people who were injured.

Divine Savior Hospital spokeswoman Haley Gilman says the hospital in nearby Portage received six people injured in the explosion. She says one was transferred to the burn unit at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, one was admitted to the intensive care unit and four were treated and released.

University of Wisconsin Hospital spokeswoman Emily Kumlien says five people were air-lifted to her facility. She says four are in the hospital's burn center, while the fifth is in the hospital's trauma and life support center. She declined to release further details.

Fire, EMS and rescue personnel from Columbia and Dodge counties were called. A reporter at the scene during the early hours on Thursday said multiple ambulances, including at least four medical helicopters had responded.

Due to the explosion, the Cambria-Friesland School District canceled classes Thursday. The district administration will make a determination today on where the Friday graduation ceremony will be held. Also a reception center was opened at the First Presbyterian Church,121 W Florence St., Cambria, today. The Red Cross is providing disaster specialist staff on site.

Village President Glen Williams said power went out after the first explosion and there was a second, smaller explosion about 20 minutes later. Williams said he was told the explosion took place in the mill and not the adjacent ethanol plant, also owned by Didion.

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"It was a three or four story structure that no longer exists. I was told that structure houses the lab and did have people staffing it at the time," Williams said.

The village was not evacuated and Williams said he was told there was no further threat.

Cambria Village Clerk/Treasurer Lois Frank said her house is about four blocks from the Didion Plant. She said, "We heard a loud boom and the house shook."

Staging for families of Didion employees was set up at the Columbia County Highway Shop. Salvation Army responded there to provide assistance.

Kim Vander Galien was among a handful of people at the Highway Shop. She said not much information was being shared with the families.

A family-owned business spanning two generations, Didion Milling has been storing, milling and transporting corn products for more than 40 years. Didion, whose corporate headquarters are in Johnson Creek, operates Didion Milling in Cambria and Didion Ethanol in the town of Courtland.

Didion employs about 225 people, but they work at various locations.

Didion Milling has been a Cambria presence for more than two decades. Construction of the Cambria milling facility – for the manufacture of “value-added” products such as corn grits, cornmeal and corn flours – was completed in 1991.

The adjacent Didion Ethanol operation opened in April 2008.

Responding to a question about the significance of Didion, Williams said, "Any loss for them is a loss for (the village)."

(The Associated Press contributed to this story)

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