Bucksport residents are reeling from Wednesday’s announcement that the town’s largest employer is shutting down.

Many employees reporting to work at the Verso Paper Corp. paper mill Thursday morning said they knew the company was in trouble and they had been bracing for some bad news – such as shutting down a paper machine.

But the announcement late Wednesday that the entire paper mill would shut down Dec. 1 caught them off guard.

“We saw it coming but didn’t think it was going to be so bad,” said Al George, 60, of Swanville.

Chad Cote, 42, was attending a prayer meeting in Ellsworth on Wednesday evening when he was approached by the pastor’s wife. She was weeping and told him how sorry she felt.

“I didn’t even know about it,” he said.

John Freeman, 62, a welder from Alton, got the news when his boss called him at home Wednesday afternoon.

“I was in total shock,” he said.

Emory Deabay, a blower operator at the mill and president of the Local 1188 United Steelworkers Union, attended a news conference in Brewer held by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a former millworker and the Democratic challenger to Gov. Paul LePage in the race for governor.

He said there had been rumblings all day Wednesday about a possible a shutdown, but it wasn’t until about 3:30 that management broke the news.

“They just basically told us they were going to shut the mill down in November,” he said.

He said it was a shock to the workers because even though the mill was losing money, they thought the power plant owned and operated by Verso at the Bucksport mill would keep the operation running. The power plant is not part of the mill closure.

“It was just shock. Everybody was just silent,” he said of the announcement.

Deabay said the town has already been dealing with a depressed economy, as evidenced by many vacant commercial properties on Main Street.

“I don’t know how much more the town can stand,” he said.

Michaud used the occasion as an opportunity to criticize LePage for what he called a lack of planning and an inability to work together with the industry, municipalities and government officials.

“He’s done nothing to develop a plan for economic development in rural Maine,” he said. Michaud outlined a six-point plan for preserving jobs in Maine that includes holding a summit within his first 30 days of office to develop an action plan for preserving the paper industry in the state.

Michaud said he reached out to LePage when two other mills closed – Great Northern Paper in East Millinocket in February, and Old Town Fuel and Fiber in August – to talk about help for the state’s paper industry, but got no response.

“All the governor wants to talk about is welfare and immigration,” Michaud.

At a news conference in Hampden, LePage fired back that Michaud’s “Monday morning quarter-backing is ridiculous” and, “If he has a crystal ball, then I’d like to borrow it.”

LePage said he would mobilize the state’s labor resources to help the displaced workers find jobs, and has already reached out to potential buyers for the Bucksport mill.

He conceded that the mill’s technology is old, but a new product mix might bring it to profitability under another owner.

“We have to see if we can do something in markets that aren’t shrinking,” such as tissue and cardboard, he said.

The Bucksport mill makes glossy paper and specialty papers.