DONIPHAN, Neb. — About 9 a.m. Sunday, butcher Steve St. John finished hanging 22 slabs of bacon in the smokehouse at his Doniphan locker and meat shop. Seven hours of smoking for each 8-pound slab would create one of the signature products he has sold at Steve's Butcher Shop for the past 28 years.
He locked up and headed for his home in Hastings.
Two hours later, 911 dispatchers called St. John to tell him fire trucks had been dispatched to his shop.
"Evidently there was a malfunction in the smoke generator," St. John said. "Once it got so hot, of course, things started on fire."
Doniphan volunteer firefighters had the fire extinguished in about 15 minutes, and the building was left standing, but the fire's smoke caused a much greater toll.
On Monday morning, St. John ducked under melted ceiling tiles in the back work-room where the fire started, stepped over charred meat tags scattered across the floor and wiped away smoky ash from the stack of meat orders at the front counter.
"My meat inspector said all of it has to go," St. John said. There's smoke on everything. It's really bad."
Smoke on the ground beef and steaks in the front showcase. Smoke on the 20 head of beef in the back lockers. Smoke on 25 deer hanging in the front locker. Smoke on the wild boar ready to be processed after a client's game hunt in Oklahoma.
"You wouldn't want meat after being in a fire like this," St. John said, shaking his head.
"The freezers are airtight, but you can smell (smoke) in here," he said as he walked into the locker, still icy cold even though power had been off for nearly a day. "There's smoke smudge on the packages."
St. John was preparing to call a rendering company. He hoped the meat could be removed before outdoor temperatures hit the 60s later in the week and a more rancid smell would fill the shop.
But before any of that cleanup work could be done, St. John needed an electrician.
None of the sides of beef, each weighing 400 pounds, could go anywhere until the locker's hoists and trolleys were operational, which required the restoration of power.
St. John has been through it before. He rebuilt the Doniphan locker after a 1995 fire.
St. John is 65, which would make retirement tempting, but he said no.
"I feel that people need me," he said. "My three employees have families and stuff, and they have worked here 10 to 12 years, too. I can't just lock the door and walk out."
He also has three file drawers full of customers' names, including some who have already booked processing for beef they plan to buy at the Hall County Fair.
"We're filled up through the end of April, and I've been calling people," St. John said. "They want to know when they can reschedule and what they need to do."
At this point, St. John said, he's not sure about the small details — only about the big one.
"We're temporarily closed, out of business, but there will be a future," he said.
After discussions Monday morning with his insurance company, St. John said, it appears that customers who had meat in the locker will be paid for that meat. There's a going per-pound price on beef. The specialty game, he understands, doesn't really carry a price because it's priceless. He worried about making those calls but hoped that clients would be understanding.
"If we can get it up and going again, that's fine," St. John said. "I just feel obligated to all my customers."