A view of the front of the plant, taken shortly after the fire. The door to the right is the main office.
The Imperial Foods building was 11 years old, although the basic structure dated back to the early 1900s. The building had been used for various food processing applications and was previously an ice cream factory. At the time of the fire, it had grown to include a series of adjoining structures totaling 30,000 square feet (2,790 m2). The factory was constructed with bricks and metalwork and was one story high. The interior was a "maze of large rooms separated by moveable walls", and both workers and the product moved around the interior from process to process, going from front to rear. Imperial's owners usually kept the doors of the chicken plant padlocked and the windows boarded. This was done to prevent people from stealing chickens, vandalizing the premises or committing other petty criminal acts. There had been no safety inspections by the state due to a lack of inspectors. The poultry inspector had visited the site daily and was aware of the various fire violations; one worker has stated that much of the chicken meat was rotten, and that the reason it was processed into chicken nuggets was to disguise the foul taste. However, for unknown reasons, he did not report these violations. Some workers were made nervous by the locked doors but did not voice their concerns for fear of losing their jobs.
Another view of the plant from front and side, taken shortly after the fire, showing the loading facility and giving a good general view of the building
The company always had a poor safety record although it had had no previous fatal accidents.
It was cited in the 1980s for safety violations at its Moosic, Pennsylvania plant. The violations included poorly marked or blocked emergency exits. The offending factory had been closed by the time of the North Carolina fire.
The Hamlet plant had had three previous non-fatal fires but no action was taken to prevent recurrence or to unlock the doors. The plant had been hit by fires before Imperial took over as well, although these, too, were non-fatal. The Imperial plant at Cumming, Georgia had had two major fires, one of which, in 1989, caused $1.2 million worth of damage.
The constant contact with chicken carcasses led to many workers contracting psittacosis, a potentially fatal type of zoonotic pneumonia, spread to humans by infected poultry.[not in citation given] There was also a high rate of repetitive motion injuries and an average of 23 percent of workers fell seriously ill or were seriously injured every year.[not in citation given] It had no fire alarm system to warn workers farther back in the plant, and there were no sprinklers anywhere in the building.
An extensive fire was considered unlikely because there was a general lack of flammable materials throughout the complex, other than some packing materials towards the rear. As a result there were open spaces between rooms in place of doors to allow for easy access by forklift trucks. The only barrier to any of these was curtains of plastic strips between some to hold in refrigerated air. This allowed for rapid spread of smoke and heat in the deadly blaze. Also, the building's previous use as an ice cream production facility meant that the walls and floor were hard, smooth surfaces, which would severely limit the amount of material that was available to absorb heat and smoke during the fire.
A view of the cooker vat where the fire started.
There were 90 employees in the facility at the time of the fire, which began when a 25 foot (7.6 m) long deep fat fryer vat apparently spontaneously ignited at around 8:30 AM. This cooker's temperature was controlled by thermostat and was maintained at a constant 375 F (190 C), which was variable by design to 15 F (8.3 C) either way. The fire spread rapidly, sending workers into a panic so that some suffered trauma injuries during their rush to escape. Large quantities of smoke were produced by a combination of burning soybean oil and chicken, and melting roof insulation. The smoke was later found to be hydrocarbon-charged and therefore had the potential to disable someone within a few breaths. Several gas lines embedded in the ceiling also caught fire and exploded.
Most of those who escaped unharmed were workers in the front of the building and got out through the unlocked main entrance, but most workers were trapped by a curtain of smoke. Others tried to escape through the locked doors by kicking them down, but without success; most of the survivors from the rear of the building got out via a loading bay. The bay was originally blocked by a tractor-trailer, but three workers went into the rear of the truck and pounded on the walls until they were heard by rescuers who moved the vehicle. Others escaped when several workers managed to break open a few of the doors, though for many this came too late.
The same cooker viewed from further back to give a better view of the general area. Note the heavy damage to the metal roof girders, testimony to the extreme heat of the fire.
The injured were sent to several different hospitals for treatment for their injuries. One of the deceased worked for an external company and was resupplying the on-site vending machines; no one even realized he was inside the plant until the company he worked for reported his truck missing.
Twenty-five people died and fifty-four suffered injuries or aftereffects such as burns, blindness, respiratory disease from smoke inhalation, neurological and brain damage, and post traumatic stress disorder. Of the dead, 18 were female and 7 were male. Many of the survivors either still suffer or died early from their injuries, and others have become addicted to their medications or to alcohol.
Emergency response was delayed because telephones inside the building could not be used. The plant owner's son drove to the fire station and informed them there that the factory was on fire but neglected to say that workers were still in the plant. More than 100 medical and emergency service personnel attended the scene, some of whom ran from a local hospital, and nearby towns provided emergency evacuation for the injured via four air ambulances from the local hospital to nearby burns units.
The response later came under heavy criticism. Fire Chief Fuller, who was in charge of the emergency response, refused help several times from the Dobbins Heights fire department, just five minutes distant. The Dobbins Heights Fire Department was composed of African-American volunteers and most of the workers were also black, and there were allegations of racial prejudice from the Fire Chief. However, Fuller has defended his decision, saying at the time he refused assistance he did not realize the doors were locked, adding "In a fire like this you need good, seasoned people." Witnesses have also said that there were only two oxygen tanks on site to help smoke-inhalation victims.
Fuller was asked to evaluate the emergency response for investigators. He said he felt there were "more than adequate numbers of personnel and equipment given the layout of the incident site".
Floor plan of the factory showing the locations of the origin of the fire and of the killed and injured.
It was immediately clear that the workers had been trapped by locked fire doors, which drew much criticism. A spokesman for the company admitted that "certain doors" in the plant were locked at "certain times" but refused to say which doors. Clark Staten of the Emergency Response and Research Institute in Chicago said in response to the blaze: "If the initial reports can be believed, this is an intolerable set of circumstances that should result in criminal charges being placed against those responsible for having the fire doors locked... Our past experience with fires and fire deaths shows that we must ensure an adequate number of open exits from any occupied building... It's hard to believe, in today's day and age that any business owner or manager would be so insensitive to fire safety as to allow this sort of incident to happen."
The Imperial processing facility in Cumming, Georgia was shut down for 24 hours immediately after the fire when a resulting inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found an inoperative sprinkler system, "improper" fire exits and no evacuation plan. Imperial Foods were told that the plant posed an "imminent danger" to workers because it lacked an automatic fire extinguisher over the cooker similar to the one installed in the Hamlet plant, which failed to prevent the disaster, but did slow the ignition of oil in the vat.
The remains of the failed hydraulic line. Note the separated end connector lying on the bench.
An investigation was immediately launched by state authorities who were joined one month later by federal colleagues. Investigators found indentations left on at least one door by people attempting to kick it down. There were concentrations of bodies around fire exits and inside a large walk-in freezer where panicked workers had sought shelter. Some sources say they instead quickly froze to death, in temperatures as low as -28 F (-33 C), but the official report states they were killed by smoke infiltration around the improperly closed door. Twelve deaths occurred in this area, though five people survived in the freezer, albeit with injuries.[not in citation given] Timothy Bradly, North Carolina's Deputy Commissioner of Insurance, said that technically "There was not a single door in the plant that met the criteria of a fire exit."[not in citation given]
The fire was caused by failure of a hydraulic line which powered a conveyor belt supplying the cooker vat. When the original line developed a leak a worker originally replaced it with new line and with new connections. Later the line, which was too long and created a tripping hazard, was shortened, but in the process the worker replaced the new end connector with the old fitting.
The line was rated to 3,000 psi (20,700 kPa), while normal operating pressure never fluctuated higher than 1,500 psi (10,300 kPa). However, when the line with a customized connector was brought up to normal operating pressure, it separated from the connector at between 800 and 1,500 psi (5,50010,300 kPa). Hydraulic fluid spattered onto the heating plumbs for the cooker and immediately vaporized. This vapor then went directly into the flame of the gas-fired cooker. The vapor had a relatively low flash point and erupted into a fireball. The ruptured hydraulic line went on to pump a total of 50 to 55 US gallons (4146 imp. gal/189208 L) of hydraulic fluid into the fire before electrical failure shut it down.
A state-of-the-art automatic carbon dioxide fire extinguisher designed to cope with such fires had been installed over the vat after a non-fatal fire in 1983 at the fire department's request. This prevented the oil itself from igniting until the later stages of the fire.[not in citation given]
Some blame was also laid upon state authorities. The state labor commissioner at the time, John C. Brooks, blamed his department's failure to inspect the plant on shortage of money and staff, but also blamed the federal government for not enforcing stricter standards.
The final report made ten recommendations. A summary of each point is included below.
Life safety codes must be enforced. Proper enforcement of existing regulations must occur in future.
Cooking areas must be separately partitioned from other employee work areas. Cooking operations in food processing plants carry a high risk of fire, and so must be separated from the rest of the building, and from as many workers as possible.
Building exits in wet-type operations should have double emergency lighting, one positioned above the door and one low to the floor. Because the work areas were cooled to comply with food preservation laws, humidity was high, so-called "wet conditions". These conditions cause particularly heavy smoke, obscuring much high-level emergency lighting.
High-pressure equipment maintenance and repairs must be limited to factory-trained personnel and specifications. Maintenance personnel working on high-pressure machinery, such as the maintenance employee who conducted the faulty modification to the hydraulic hose in the plant, must be trained by personnel from the factory that supplied the equipment.
High-pressure equipment in probable incident areas should have built-in catastrophic shutdown valves. This would reduce the probability of accidents in high-risk areas by shutting down machinery should a fault occur.
Negative air flow systems in these facilities could enhance safety by being modified to also accomplish smoke evacuation. Many similar plants have this equipment, which is designed to quickly purge the air of toxic fumes in the event of accidental release of ammonia. The report recommends modifying the equipment to also pull heavy smoke away from lower areas.
State and federal inspectors from various departments should be cross-trained. Had the food inspector reported the problems he saw, the disaster may have been prevented despite the lack of other safety inspections. Such personnel should be trained to recognize major problems and to report them to the relevant authorities.
Establish a orry free line of communications for industry employees. Workers inside the Hamlet plant were afraid to say anything about safety conditions for fear of being fired. To overcome such problems, states should establish systems of anonymous reporting of problems by workers.
The number of OSHA safety inspectors must be increased. The team of inspectors was hugely overburdened at the time of the accident, and the report says that the number of inspectors requires increasing to solve the problem.
Emergency exit drills must be incorporated into industry policies. This would allow quick evacuation of premises like the Hamlet chicken plant.
A view of the plant taken from a ladder across the street, showing a collapsed section of roof directly above the origin of the fire.
Prosecution of the owners
Emmett J. Roe, owner of Imperial Foods Products Inc.; his son Brad, who was operations manager for the company; and plant manager James N. Hair all surrendered to face prosecution on March 13, 1992, and were charged with non-negligent manslaughter. There was no trial. Instead on September 15, 1992, owner Roe senior pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter while his son and another man went free as part of a plea bargain. It was Roe senior who had personally ordered the doors to be locked from the outside.[dead link] He received a prison sentence of 19 years and 11 months.[dead link] The sentence is unpopular among many of the workers and their families who point out that it amounts to less than a year for each dead person.[dead link] Roe first became eligible for parole in March 1994, and was released just under four years into his sentence.[dead link]
Prosecution of Imperial Foods
Imperial Foods was fined $808,150 for offenses such as the locked doors and inadequate emergency lighting. The amount is comparatively small compared to federal penalties that can total millions because the state administers its own safety program. It is thought that were the Occupational Safety and Health Administration responsible the fines would have totaled between $2.8 million and $10 million.[not in citation given] Despite this, the fine was still the highest in the history of North Carolina.
References as a textbook example
The disaster and subsequent prosecution have been used as textbook cases in books such as Essential Criminology (1998, Henry, Stuart; Mark M. Lanier) and Political Crime in Contemporary America: a Critical Approach (1993, Aulette, J.R. & Michaelowski, R.), the latter having an entire chapter devoted to the incident entitled "Fire in Hamlet: a Case Study of State-Corporate Crime".
After the fire the factory was permanently closed, with the loss of 215 jobs.[dead link] Within two years of the accident insurance companies and the North Carolina business lobby collaboratively introduced legislation to severely limit the compensation available to injured workers and relatives of killed workers. Insurance companies had originally agreed to pay $16.1 million to the injured and the families of the deceased. Some of the workers became activists as a result, to fight what they see as "bureaucratic injustice". They had originally hired John Coale, an attorney who had worked on the Bhopal disaster, but he could not legally practice in North Carolina.
On January 9, 1992, U.S. Labor Secretary Lynn Martin told North Carolina state officials they had a deadline of 90 days to improve enforcement of job safety and health regulations or federal agencies would take over. The North Carolina General Assembly passed 14 new worker safety laws as a result, including provision of a system whereby workers could report violations without fear of job loss. The inspector corps was increased from 60 to 114.
Two separate monuments were erected due to a dispute. Many of the workers and their families wanted Jesse Jackson to speak in the city's memorial effort. But Mayor Abbie Covington did not want him involved and was backed up by many other local authority figures. The result was that a group of the survivors held their own service which included Jackson. Both services unveiled near-identical monuments, which are situated just 50 yards (46 m) from each other.
Because of the town's small size, many firefighters knew some or all of the victims, and have suffered psychological problems. Fifty to sixty of them attended counseling sessions afterward.
A memorial service was held in 2000, though by then many survivors had died, mostly due to complications from their injuries. The burned-out shell of the factory was bulldozed by the state in 2001 after it was declared "a public health nuisance" due to the psychological effects it had on the victims, many of whom still lived within sight of the structure.
References in popular culture
Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon wrote a song about this incident called "Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster". It is included in their album Prairie Home Invasion. The disaster is the subject of a documentary film titled Hamlet: The Untold Tragedy. Although the project is currently looking for funds for completion a 20-minute version titled Hamlet: Out of the Ashes is currently on tour. A book on the subject, A Southern Tragedy, in Crimson and Yellow, was