THE state's biggest meat abattoir was ablaze on Wednesday night as firefighters battled to control the massive fire in the Murray Mallee.
Authorities were called to Thomas Foods International's meatworks, on Murray Bridge's the northern outskirts, amid reports of a "significant" structure fire.
■ About 20 firefighters are still battling a large factory fire near the intersection of Lagoon Road and Mannum Road at Murray Bridge.
■ The fire has been contained and salvage crews are helping the remaining crews gain access to the basement where it continues to burn.
■ It is estimated the fire caused "several million" dollars worth of damage but firefighters say more than half the facility was saved.
■ Fire Cause Investigators will be attending in the morning to examine the scene.
■ There have been no reported injuries - one firefighter was taken to hospital as a precaution.
■ Residents in the vicinity of the fire are advised to close all doors and windows and stay indoors until the smoke has passed.
■ There are road closures in place including Lagoon Road and Nilpena Road, police are on scene directing traffic but are asking members of the public to please keep clear of the area.
Witnesses told The Advertiser how a "wall of flames" engulfed the facility, 76km east of Adelaide, which remained uncontrolled on Wednesday night.
More than 100 Metropolitan and Country Fire Service crews responded to the intense blaze - from as far away as Woodville, in the western suburbs - sparking the highest alarm response.
Residents were warned to stay away from the Northern Heights facility and remain indoors as the fire tore through the 8000 sqm structure amid fears the building could collapse or explode.
Workers told how the fire may have started in a lamb boning room from malfactioning machinery or a welder.
Shocked staff gathered outside as they watched their workplace burn.
A statement from the company's CEO Darren Thomas late on Wednesday night said:
■ "Emergency crews are attending a fire which broke out at Thomas Foods
International's Murray Bridge meat processing facilities early this evening.
■ "Thankfully all our employees on site were safely and promptly evacuated.
■ "The exact cause of the fire and the full extent of the structural damage is yet to be determined.
■ "While this is being assessed, the company is making alternative processing
arrangements to meet our customer requirements.''
Thomas Foods is Australia's largest family-owned food processing company and one of the state's most successful businesses with annual revenue of more than $1 billion.
Processing lamb, beef, mutton and goat, its major clients include Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, McDonalds, IGA and Drake Supermarkets.
Company officials were unable to say on Wednesday night what impact the fire would have on the country's meat supplies.
Founded in 1988, it employs more than 3000 people in its processing and distribution facilities in Australia and overseas - and is Murray Bridge's biggest employer.
The company, which is an Adelaide Football Club major sponsor, exports to more than 80 countries across North America, Europe and the Middle East.
A worker, who did not want to be named, was on the slaughter floor when staff were ordered to get out.
"This is a really big factory for Murray Bridge and it will be a huge shame if we lose it," he said.
More than 20 fire trucks were called to the facility at 6.58pm as witnesses told how the fire rapidly took hold and spread over three levels of the building.
Despite police warnings, large crowds gathered to watch the fire, which could be seen from more than 50km away. It caused access problems to the facility.
Mannum Rd resident Bea Kynaston, 19, who lives less than 1km from the plant, witnessed walls start to collapse shortly before 8pm.
"You could see the sides of the wall caving in. We heard a big bang and flames started rushing out through the gap," she said.
"You could see inside the plant and flames were everywhere. We started hearing (more) big bangs and thought we'd better get out of there.
'We're all on standby at the minute in case we have to evacuate if it explodes."
She added: "I'm just glad all the flames are going to the back of (the plant) toward the wetlands, so it's not getting near houses. It's blowing away from houses."
She described scenes of chaos as the huge crowd hindered emergency services.
"There's a lot of people standing around in their work uniforms," she said. "It's really sad because there's going to be a lot of people out of work," she said.
Murray Bridge Mayor Brenton Lewis said the impact on the area was unknown.
"It's our biggest employer so whatever happens at Thomas Foods will impact on Murray Bridge, so we just have to wait and see," he said.
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