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Northwood community rallies around Korsmo trucking, farm company lost to fire

NORTHWOOD, N.D.—Not even a day after an early morning fire Friday consumed semi and farm trucks whole and left just a smoldering shell of the longtime Korsmo Brothers Farms and Trucking business, a makeshift office opened and the deliveries rolled on.

"We have an incredible crew. As far as trucking, I don't think we're going to skip a beat with our customers," said Paul Korsmo, who has owned the business for decades along with brothers David and Dan. A third brother and partner, Steve, died in 2013.

Though the business is more than 41 years old, that's how long the 9,500-square-foot building has been located off Highway 15 just outside Northwood. The business employs 13—many of them longtime workers—and Korsmo said Wednesday he assured all they would stay on.

Korsmo said it was one of those employees who first discovered the fire.

Tony Waklee had an early delivery the next morning so he was resting in the cab's sleeper inside the shop when a loud explosion startled him awake about 2:30 a.m. Friday.

It was unusual for all six semi-trucks to be parked in the workshop, but "it was 23 below that morning," Korsmo said. Waklee luckily had parked up front because he knew he would be first out in the morning.

He was luckier still, Korsmo said, that he heard the bang at all because he was wearing a CPAP machine.

"If you know anything about CPAP machines, they're loud, and you can't smell anything at all because of the mask," Korsmo said.

Waklee at first thought maybe a tire had blown, and he didn't detect the fire at all until he opened the truck's door to pitch black and the smoke immediately rolled in. He had to feel for the button to open the overhead door and then flagged down a passerby to call for help. He had left his cellphone in the truck.

Oddly, it was Korsmo's nephew Jason, David's son, who arrived on the scene. It was just his fifth day on the job as the new chief of the Northwood Volunteer Fire Department.

The Northwood crew was joined by volunteer firefighters from Hatton and Larimore, but Korsmo said there was little they could do to stop the fire. They were still on the scene a full 12 hours later.

Korsmo said the blaze destroyed six over-the-road fleet trucks, farm loaders and forklifts, three Harley-Davidson motorcycles and several other pieces of equipment. Upstairs, above the company office, Korsmo said a large collection of toy tractors also was lost, along with the love letters parents Peder and Bea Korsmo had exchanged while Peder was in the service during World War II.

"In all this, there's been a lot of things that not for the grace of God could have been something worse," Korsmo said. "It was an absolute miracle. I mean nuts and bolts can be replaced, but thank God, there was no loss of life. Everything else can be replaced."

Korsmo's wife, Judy, said Waklee was taken to the emergency room to be checked for smoke inhalation, but his lungs were clear.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but Korsmo says he's confident investigators will find it.

For now, he said business will go on as usual.

"Our plans are to continue just like we've always done," he said. "We haven't made plans yet on what we're going to do about the building, but there will be no change for the employees, and same with the farm."

Korsmo said a friend offered to open his Northwood shop to the company, and they will be able to work on trucks there.

"We were able to secure some rental trucks so even by Monday morning, between the rental trucks and the owner-operators who work for us, we were able to meet our obligations without a hiccup," he said.

The community support has been overwhelming, he said. The office staff showed up for work that morning and immediately put together a makeshift office in a clinic building next door, and the townspeople were dropping off food just as fast.