The Sun Journal took home a number of first place awards for journalism and advertising during Saturday’s Maine Press Association annual awards ceremony.

The newspaper’s staff was awarded a first place in the spot news writing category for its coverage last April of a massive explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay when poorly welded joints on a digester failed, causing an explosion following what was later determined to be a rupture in the equipment’s pressure vessel.

The silo-shaped pulp digester is destroyed in April 2020 in an explosion at Pixelle Specialty Paper’s Androscoggin Mill in Jay. The Sun Journal staff was awarded first place for spot news coverage of the event during Saturday’s annual Maine Press Association awards. Sun Journal file photo

The lead writer on that story, staff writer Donna Perry, was working remotely under COVID-19 restrictions and rushed to the Jay property as soon as she heard about the explosion. She was the first journalist at the site, getting there early enough to get inside the police cordon, and within a half-hour the Sun Journal had posted a brief story and locator map reporting the explosion.

Staff photographers Andree Kehn and Russ Dillingham also went to the scene, where Kehn shot stills of the property and Dillingham captured drone footage over the damaged mill.

Recalling the reporting that day, “the photos and video I got told the story as nothing else could,” Dillingham said. “Broadcasting live on our Facebook page allowed the general public to get a bird’s-eye view of the carnage and how it was a miracle that not one single mill worker or emergency responder was killed or even hurt. A tragedy, for sure, but a miracle that we were able to illustrate.”

As the day progressed, staff writers Kathryn Skelton and Mark LaFlamme continued reporting, including building a timeline of mill ownership and operations.

The scene at the mill was devastating, but Perry said it was also highly emotional because the same firefighters and first responders who were at the Jay mill explosion had also responded to a deadly propane explosion that leveled a building in nearby Farmington seven months prior, and many of them told her they were still reeling from their experience and felt rattled to be at another explosion site so soon.

The Sun Journal also accepted a first place award in the analysis category for former staff writer Lindsay Tice’s report on “Education under siege,” a data analysis reporting which schools performed well and which performed poorly before the pandemic, and a look at how those statistics could soon get worse for Maine’s more disadvantaged students who struggled with remote learning.

Dillingham won a first place award for his video on the 2021 KVAC Nordic Championship, and LaFlamme won a first place award in the feature story category for his story, “Walking the beat with Officer Ryan Gagnon.”

Former Sun Journal intern Victoria DeCoster won a first place award for her lifestyle feature, “Welcome to Burgundar,” and designer Jason Rathbun won a first place award for specialty page design on a Steve Collins feature published in August about the last wild passenger pigeon being gunned down in Maine.

Rathbun and freelance writer Karen Schneider also won first place in the graphics category for their work reporting and designing the Sun Journal’s annual two-page graphic of the entire year’s worth of weather in 2020.

Sports Editor Lee Horton and page designer Joel Matuszczak won first place for daily Sports page design.

Kelly Wade, Melissa Logan and Jennifer Gendron-Carlton won first place in advertising’s “best new revenue idea” category for the special section on “Thank a nurse,” and Nancy Fickett, Tyler Roma and Wade won first place in the advertising special section category for Clarity on Cannabis, published on 4.20.20.

The Sun Journal also took home second place awards in categories for news video, feature photo, sports page design, news story, spot news story about the Varneys slain in Turner, continuing story on the explosion at the Jay mill, opinion columnist, investigative report, religion, education story and outdoors story. And, it took home third place awards for feature photo, game story, sports news story, sports page design, feature story, news headline, business story and advertising’s best young reader engagement idea.

The newspaper won third place awards in the freedom of information category, general excellence in advertising, digital general excellence, and general excellence in the daily category.

Advertiser-Democrat staff writer Nicole Carter won a second place in the health care story category for her report “Fryeburg family learns how invisible and virulent COVID-19 can be,” and second place for her feature on Tiana James.

Livermore Falls Advertiser staff writer Pam Harnden won a second place for environmental reporting for “Dawn Brown gives bears a second chance.”

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