(TNS) - On Sept. 3, 1991, a fire broke out at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant on Bridges Street after a hydraulic line ruptured above a fryer. Workers inside the plant struggled in darkness through smoke and flames — only to discover the emergency exits were chained shut from the outside.
The fire killed 25 workers and injured 56, and 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of one of North Carolina’s worst industrial disasters. The tragedy was remembered in September with a memorial service at Cole Auditorium.
Hamlet City Manager Marcus Abernethy said there are three historic markers in the city to remind the community of the tragic industrial fire that claimed so many lives.
“The first was set up at the Hamlet City Lake and is located between the Senior Center and the caboose, at the edge of the parking lot,” he said in August. “The second one is located on the intersection of Bridges Street and U.S. 74, and the third is on the former site of Imperial Foods itself, also on Bridges Street but at the other end.”
Abernethy explained that the lot where Imperial Foods once sat is now owned by the state, but “the city maintains the grounds as far as cutting the grass.”
“There are some brick columns and street lights,” he said of the site. “And 25 crepe myrtles that were planted for each of the victims of the fire, and a memorial with a sidewalk leading to it.”
Hamlet Fire Chief Calvin White — who was a captain with the department and had just begun his shift on the day of the fire — said it didn’t take long for things to go downhill.
“We came in that morning, me and the guy I was working with on that shift,” White said. “We got in about 8 a.m. and it was like other days. We started out with some coffee. It was about 8:35 a.m. when the call came in.”
White said it wasn’t really a call that came in, but a person.
“Brad Roe came running in our front door saying the plant was on fire,” White said. “What he didn’t tell us was that anyone was inside.”
Brad Roe was operations manager of the plant and his father, Emmett J. Roe, was the owner.
Not only were there nearly 90 people working in the plant that morning, but the doors meant to serve as emergency exits were locked from the outside making escape impossible. Later, it was determined that Emmett Roe had personally ordered the doors to be locked — according to a survivor — to prevent employees from stealing chicken from the plant.
Why it’s important
The aftermath of the deadly fire at Imperial Foods led to increased safety regulations intended to protect workers.
North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry took office 10 years after the fire at Imperial Foods in Hamlet, but that gap has not distanced her from the responsibilities of enforcing labor safety reforms made in the tragedy’s wake.
“The tragic fire at Imperial Foods in Hamlet in 1991 led to major reform in 1992 by the N.C. General Assembly,” Berry said in an email to the Daily Journal. “The reform included an expansion of the number of (Occupational Safety and Health) compliance officers, enforcement focus on high-risk industries and the authorization of fines to be levied against governmental entities for noncompliance.”
Berry said the fire sparked an intense interest by state and local officials in certain industrial markers that can successfully illustrate improvements made in workplace safety and compliance.
Survivor Annette Zimmerman, who lives with the memories of the fire, said that while she recognizes some changes have been made, they did not go far enough to prevent another Imperial Foods fire.
“The only good that could come from such a tragic event would be for workplace policies and OSHA laws to have changed,” Zimmerman said. “To have more inspectors go in and identify things that are wrong and actually make the companies pay to get things fixed. I think, to a small degree, it did happen. I don’t think there’s been enough done.
“To my knowledge,” she continued, “we haven’t had another similar event in North Carolina, but it seems like there are things that have not been fixed and companies are still making money without being penalized enough.”
Zimmerman also added that she and other known survivors only learned of the event at the Cole through second-hand sources and that she would have liked to receive a personal invitation the next time.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.
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