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Hamlet, NC Chicken Processing Plant Fire, Sep 1991

Imperial Plant Building Fryer Inside Plant Interior Damage

PLANT FIRE CLAIMS 25 IN N. C.

WITNESSES REPORT TRAPPED WORKERS DIED SCREAMING.

By The Associated Press.
Hamlet, N. C. -- Screaming workers pounded and kicked locked exit doors as fire swept a chicken processing plant, killing 25 people and injuring 49. The 11-year-old plant had never been inspected.
"A whole lot of people were in one little corner, just pushing, trying to make a hole in the wall," said worker LETHA TERRY. "I thought I was gone, until a man broke the lock off the door. I thank the Lord I got out, but a whole lot of people got killed."
The blaze Tuesday at the Imperial Food Products plant erupted when a hydraulic line ruptured near a 26-foot-long deep-fat fryer and the spilled fluid caught fire, said CHARLES DUNN, deputy director of the State Bureau of Investigation.
Fire Chief DAVID FULLER would not confirm witnesses' reports that all but one of nine exits were locked or blocked.
ELLA MAE BLACKSTOCK and other workers said the company kept doors locked "so people couldn't steal their chickens."
"Certain doors are locked at certain times," said BRAD ROE, operations manager and son of plant owner EMMETT J. ROE. "I can't tell you which doors were locked, if any were locked."
SBI agent NEIL GODFREY said the designated fire doors were unlocked, but other exits were impassable, including those closest to the fire. "Obviously there may be some compliance problems," he said.
However, a door with a sign saying "Fire Door Do Not Block" was seen padlocked.
Blackened footprints were on one door after the blaze. Some workers could be heard screaming helplessly and eventually perished, witnesses said.
Some victims were found near exits and others were found in a meat locker, where they had fled, FULLER said. About 90 of Imperial Food's 200 employees were in the plant when the fire erupted about 8:30 a.m., the company said.
Authorities said 25 people were killed, and hospitals reported at least 49 injured.
"You can tell be the look of the people that it's a tragedy beyond belief," Mayor ABBIE COVINGTON said. "In a small town its always somebody's neighbor or somebody's son."
One fireman found his father dead, said JOEY JERNIGAN, a town councilman.
Imperial Food is the town's largest employer. Hamlet, in south-central North Carolina, has a population of about 6,900.
The plant, which makes chicken nuggets and marinated chicken breasts sold at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, was never inspected by the state because there are not enough inspectors, said CHARLES JEFFRESS, assistant commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Labor.
The state focuses on plants that have safety complaints, and none had ever been filed against Imperial, he said. The state fire code does not specify how often a plant should be inspected.
SBI's DUNN said maintenance workers had just reconnected the hydraulic line when it ruptured, spraying the flammable fluid onto the floor, he said.
The vapor reached the fryer in the middle of the 30,000-square-foot plant "and apparently there was a flash and the fire started there," he said. Thick, black smoke killed most of the victims, he said.
Worker CAROLYN RAINWATER said, "I saw a big puff of black smoke and I started running for the back door."
A delivery truck was backed up to the loading dock door, but she and others escaped by jumping into the trailer and yelling for the driver to pull away.
"I felt helpless," said SAM BREEDEN, a passerby. "They were screaming, 'Let me out!' They were beating on the door."
BREEDEN helped his sister-in-law, MATTIE FAIRLEY, poke her head out a garbage chute to get fresh air. She was hospitalized in stable condition.
SHARON TOWNSEND, another worker, said: "We were in the bathroom. A man came along and kicked the back door out. That's the only way we got out."
JAMES ARNOLD'S sister was killed. "When they have the words 'fire exit' over a door and it's bolted locked, I want to know why," he said, tears streaming down his face.
Fire damage was limited to the fryer area, although most of the plant was damaged by smoke.
Victims Of The Fire:
DAVID M. ALBRIGHT.
PEGGY JEAN ANDERSON.
MARGARET TERESA BANKS.
FRED ERNEST BARRINGTON.
JOSEPHINE BARRINGTON.
ELIZABETH ANN BELLAMY.
GAIL V. CAMPBELL.
ROSIE ANN CHAMBERS.
JOSIE M. COULTER.
JOHN R. GAGNON.
BERTHA C. JARRELL.
BRENDA GAIL KELLY.
JANICE MARIE LYNCH.
MICHAEL MORRISON.
ROSE MARIE PEELE.
MARY ALICE QUICK.
CYNTHIA MARIE RATLIFF.
MARTHA E. RATLIFF.
DONALD BRUCE RICH.
MINNIE MAE THOMPSON.
CYNTHIA S. WALL.
MARY LILLIAN WALL.
JEFFREY ANTONIO WEBB.
ROSE LYNETTE WILKINS.
PHILLIP RAY DAWKINS.

Aiken Standard South Carolina 1991-09-04

Comments

Imperial Foods Fire

Thank you for sharing this. My mom Mary Alice Arnold Quick, died in the fire. It's because I'm researching this, that I found this page. I'm sorry to hear about her son, Rodney. You're right it didn't have to be that way. I would actually like to talk with others who were affected, to help with my paper. You can find me on FB.

Imperial Foods Fire

Ms. Price, thank you for that response. I am one of the many children who lost a parent in that fire. I ended up on this site because I am doing a research paper regarding this subject. Thank you for using this tragedy as an example to teach and save others.

this is for my mom Josie M

this is for my mom Josie M Coulter this is your daughter Angela Coulter it has been a long time for me to be able to look at all of the things people say about the fire. It didn't have to happen in the first place. A lot of people lost love ones in the fire and I still miss my mom everyday.She wont get to see all her grandchildren grow up but I know she is looking over all of them.I love you and miss you. and if anyone want to talk you may reach me at my daughters facebook her name is Josie Jenkins.

why they locked my dad and others in

I was a police officer in Hamlet when this happened. I did not know the fire doors were locked until after the fire. I feel the reason was greed simply greed. I heard second and third hand that the doors were locked to keep anyone from taking the packages of "chicken tinders" out of the plant. I had investigated the thieft of some boxes of chicken there. The manager refused to prosecute and as I later found out, didn't fire the employees taking the boxes of chicken. They chose to lock the doors. Pure greed and disreguard for the safety of employees.

Lost photo

I found a picture in the walmart parking lot in Anderson SC of a man at a grave with your fathers headstone. I looked him up and it led me to this article with led me to you. Are you missing a photo?

MOTHER

MAY U REST IN PEACE YOU ARE GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Cody

Cody, I was so sorry to hear about this horrible accident! I went to school with your dad and he was a wonderful person! Just remember he will always be with you and i know he loves you very much! I wish I would have know at the time so i could have come and paid my respects to the family. I would also like to go visit his grave but i dont know where it is. Cody just keep your head up and always know that you have a bery special angel with you always!
Priscilla

Bertha Jarrell

My boyfriend lost his mother in the fire Bertha Jarrell he sends his sympathy to all who feel his pain Mom rest in peace i love you your son kenneth

uncle john

I would love for you to contact me. Becky would love to talk to you. I am stunned to see this comment. just so you know it's really me does "buster" mean anything to you? rlockhart1@yahoo.com

My aunt Josie Mae Coulter

I know this tragedy all to well. My last living blood aunt was Josie Mae Coulter. My mom and her sister Josie were so close. They would call each other weekly as we lived in Chattanooga and aunt Josie and her three kids were in Rockingham, NC. All she and all the other workers that were there that day only wanted one thing. Earn their honest days pay and go home to their families. However due to a combination of corporate greed and government inefficiency twenty-five did not go home to theirs. The effects still reach us now as I type this on the twentieth anniversary of this unspeakable tragedy. My aunt Josie had three kids. I grew up with my cousins before they moved to NC in the mid 80's. Josie's son Rodney was a talented artist. His drawings were awesome. After the tragedy of losing his mom, he fell into a tragic cycle of depression and drug abuse that led to his suicide a few years later. The ultimately sad part of this tragedy is that it was preventable. God bless all the families that were affected by this tragedy. May God continue to bring us healing.



article | by Dr. Radut