Ken JohnsonCONNECTING THE DOTSGrand Junction Free Press Opinion Columnist

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April 11, 2013
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JOHNSON: The winds of April 39 years ago

April winds and odd weather are pretty routine. This week is no exception with wind, rain and even snow hustling through the valley. Shoot, there was even a gas explosion and ensuing fire that destroyed two homes some weeks ago! So on Tuesday the 9th as the weather blustered, I raised a cup of coffee to similar memories of the same day 39 years ago. April 10, 1974, was a Wednesday just like this year. The Daily Sentinel had 24 pages that day, but a very odd page one.That was because it was part of a "miracle" engineered by the newspaper staffers and their refusal to let the freshly-charred paper die."The Sentinel is dead. The walls are all down," Bill Hams quoted the uniformed man with the shiny badge manning the barricade. "They are out of business."That April 9 night, a fire, started by electric sparks caused by high winds from coming in from Utah, turned the Mesa Feed grain elevators into a blazing inferno. The silos acted like huge chimneys, raining red embers and burning chunks of timber down on neighbors like the Daily Sentinel, H & M Electric next door south of the feed mill, and Denning Lumber's inventory of lumber further east from the Sentinel. All burned.A huge threat looming over that entire end of town was the Conoco bulk gasoline tanks on Ninth Street, where burning chunks of timber and the deadly embers were pelting down. An explosion there would have been catastrophic. Small grass fires as far east as 12th Street were caused by the windblown brands. Those spot fires were stomped out by volunteers.For the Sentinel Hams wrote: "The grim dawn today (April 10) was the clincher. The Sentinel still lives. Pretty tolerably scorched, true. That expensive new press the staff was so proud of stands gaunt, scorched like an overdone mess of barbecue ribs."The roof is caved in over the mailroom section. The hard-to-come-by and valuable stocks of newsprint, now soggy, still smoking and steaming, stand in seared black and white stacks."The Sentinel you are reading right now may not be the best we have ever produced. In fact, it may look downright odd in places. But it is a pretty lively sheet for a newspaper that was supposed to be dead as a flounder at midnight Tuesday."Sentinel Staff Writer Larry Brown wrote the page one story, capturing the hour-by-hour fire battle. He garnered information from Fire Chief R. T. Mantlo, captains Jim Shue and Gene Thye, Battalion Chiefs Wes Painter and James Vanlandingham, and retired Fire Chief Frank Kreps. They were all on the job, all night.The fire took out the press building, a barely 7-months-old Harris press, the older Hoe Printmaster and a Goss Community press. It snuffed up 3,000 gallons of black ink from a tank in the destroyed press room and ignited like rocket fuel. The flames destroyed nearly 2,000 rolls of scarce newsprint, weighing 600 pounds to the roll. That was a hard-won six-months supply. The loss? Something north of $3 million in those 1974 dollars. The presses were insured but our huge extra costs of printing the paper seven days a week in Glenwood Springs on the Post's presses were not. Our press crew lived in Glenwood to run those presses, even printing the Post's paper.We had help from some great friends all across America. But our "family" of staffers who knew the paper was a vital part of Grand Junction and western Colorado systematically got the little miracle underway. At a rapid pace.We snagged an even bigger new Harris press that was sitting on the docks in New York headed for the Philippines. On Easter Sunday, a Salt Lake City concrete company was casting the twin-T concrete wall sections for the new building over 20 feet tall. The building and equipment ruins were being scraped off the concrete slab and sent off as junk.For 44 days, the paper itself went on just like nothing had happened. On day 45, the tired gang happily celebrated success - the Sentinel was fully back in business, on its own presses in its own building.That catastrophic fire and the amazing rebuild became a legend in the newspaper industry. No other paper in America had ever set such land-speed records to get itself rebuilt following such massive destruction. Goin' on nearly 40 years later I continue to hold a clear memory of those hectic days, and be a bit proud of this bit of local lore. And I continue to be extraordinarily proud of the great workforce that was the heart of our fine newspaper.Ken is founder of the Grand Junction Free Press and former owner/publisher of The Daily Sentinel. He spends his time between the Grand Valley and California.


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The Post Independent Updated Apr 11, 2013 04:22PM Published Apr 11, 2013 04:21PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.