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Christmas For Workers’ Families Spoiled By Mill Fire

December 13, 1995

METHUEN, Mass. (AP) _ This was supposed to be the year the Tejada children celebrated Christmas like everyone else.

The lights were up, a tree was next. And there was a $275 Christmas bonus coming from Malden Mills, where Osiris Tejada worked as a shipper.

Then the mill went up in flames.

Now the Tejadas say they’ll be lucky to hang on to the modest two-family house they bought a year ago. And Christmas presents? They will depend on church toy drives.

The Tejadas are like many mill workers devastated by Monday night’s fire, which has forced at least 1,400 people out of work just before Christmas. Mill owner and president Aaron Feuerstein said he hopes at least part of the operation could be running in 30 days.

Feuerstein also said workers will receive their paychecks and Christmas bonuses this afternoon.

The fire began with an explosion, possibly in a boiler, so powerful that it blew out the sprinkler system. Four of the five enormous buildings in the complex were reduced to smoking piles of brick, wood and metal. Thirty-three people were injured, eight critically.

``Two weeks before Christmas it’s all gone,″ Chris McRae, a veteran employee, said Tuesday. ``This building has been here for 100 years, and now there’s nothing left.″

Partly because of the sophisticated manufacturing process used to convert recycled soda bottles into Polartec _ the patented 100 percent polyester fabric _ Malden Mills pays employees an average of $12.50 an hour, compared with the industry average of $9.44. With 3,100 total employees in the company, it is the biggest employer in Methuen, 30 miles north of Boston.

``This place here has put first-generation immigrants into the middle class,″ said Norman Menzies, a local contractor, as he looked over the ruins.

The mill, built in 1867, is the only one in the nation to make the warm, fleecy synthetic material used in outdoor gear sold by many of the most popular sporting goods stores. Its customers include L.L. Bean.

The Tejadas say their quest for a middle-class life was tied to 12-hour shifts at the textile plant a few blocks from their house.

``If it wasn’t for this job we wouldn’t be where we are now _ the house, everything. Before this, we had absolutely nothing,″ said Lourdes Tejada, who left her job at a nursing home to care for their 5-month-old son, Christian, and their 4-year-old daughter, Crystal.

Before Tejada landed a job at Malden Mills five years ago, he and his wife lived with his sister.

The fire has also forced Ajenol Horton to cut back on Christmas presents for his son and daughter.

``It’s tough for everybody. You struggle for your family. You have your house, your car. Then this happens,″ said Horton, who has worked as a supervisor and machine operator at the plant for 19 years.

Many families have more than one member working at the mill.

Nurys Cintron said she had saved up emergency money that will help tide things over for herself, her husband and their two boys, Hector Jr., 5, and Manuel 2. But she’s worried about her sister and others who are living paycheck to paycheck.

The ripple effect probably will affect many small businesses, which rely on the plant and its workers.

``It’s going to be terrible. We’ll try to survive, but it’s going to be tough,″ said Julio Correa, who has been working at the plant for four years.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich said he would approve the state’s request to waive the two-week wait for unemployment benefits, and would extend the regular period for receiving the benefits.

He also said his department would move immediately on a state request for $3.7 million in aid for such things as job training and looking for new jobs.

For now, families like the Tejadas will try to mask their fear and frustration so their children can enjoy the holidays. Tejada will look for work, and hope the mill can rebuild quickly.

Mrs. Tejada already wrote a letter to Santa.

``Maybe someone will answer, and the kids can get what they wanted,″ she said.

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