‘We were a family:’ Hermiston leaders honored for efforts following the Shearer’s Foods explosion

HERMISTON, Ore. — Six minutes is all it took for Jacqueline Chavez, a senior plant manager at Shearer’s Foods, to help all of her coworkers evacuate the building after a boiler began exploding at the Hermiston site back in February.

Chavez said she was in a meeting upstairs when she was notified of the fire.

“I was in shock,” Chavez said. “The first thing that hit my mind was, ‘Is everybody okay?'”

ORIGINAL STORY: Explosion at Hermiston food plant injured at least 6 people, generates massive plume of smoke & closes roads

She ran down, yelling for everyone to get out as black plumes of smoke began billowing in the sky.

“[As a leader] you are responsible for all those people and ensuring that they go home the same way they came to work,” Chavez said.

Luckily, with the assistance of multiple fire departments and other local agencies, no one died in the explosion although several workers were sent to the hospital for injuries.

Following the fire, hundreds of employees were laid off as the damage became too great.

“After assessing the damage, it’s clear that the destruction is too great to quickly rebuild and begin production in the near term. Unfortunately, it would take at least 15-18 months before we could resume production. We have not yet decided the future of the Shearer’s Hermiston site. This has led to the very difficult decision to end employment for our team members,” a statement from CEO Bill Nictakis said in February.

READ: Shearer’s Foods lays off all employees following explosion in Hermiston

Chavez said the situation was “heartbreaking.”

“We were a family. We loved being there,” Chavez said. We loved what we did.”

Hermiston Mayor Dr. David Drotzmann said the explosion “was truly a tragedy that affected many families in our community.”

“Upwards of 200 jobs lost that fateful day in a matter of minutes it seemed like,” Dr. Drotzmann said.

To honor both Chavez’s and Dr. Drotzmann’s efforts during and after the fire, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D), came to the Hermiston Community Center on Tuesday afternoon to bestow them with flags recently flown above the U.S. Capitol.

“In the Hermiston community today we feel very strongly in our country, in our values, and these leaders in Hermiston sure showed it at the time of the big fire,” Sen. Wyden said, calling them an inspiration across the country. “I wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget how they helped quickly to get this community back on a healing track.”

Chavez said receiving the flag was “an honor.”

“I was just speaking to my team and letting them know that this flag isn’t just for me, it’s for all of us,” Chavez said.

RELATED:

Officials continue to investigate Shearer’s Foods explosion

GALLERY: Views of the Hermiston food plant explosion and subsequent fire from every angle