HAMLET — Ada Blanchard still has the clothes she wore to work Sept. 3, 1991 — the day of the tragic fire at Imperial Foods that left 24 of her coworkers dead.
Blanchard was one of the two survivors to speak Friday morning during the 30th anniversary memorial service held at the site of the fatal incident on Bridges Street in Hamlet.
Towards the end of her speech, Blanchard reached into a bag and pulled out the garments: a smock, shirt and pair of socks.
“It’s so great to be standing here, in the name of my Heavenly Father, who gave me life that day … he saved me that day,” Blanchard said. “That day is the most terrible day that I can remember. As I stand here on these grounds, I can’t tell you where I was, but I know this is the ground that the tragedy happened.
In addition to the plant’s employees, Phillip Dawkins, who was refilling the Lance snack machine, also perished.
Blanchard said after the fire, she went across the country speaking about workplace safety.
“Don’t have no fear,” she said. “An employer’s a man just like I am… we got to have nerve, we got to be bold … we got to step up to the plate, cause when you go to bat … you want that home run.
“It’s not about us no more, it’s about the future,” Blanchard continued, saying her daughter now works at a chicken plant. “I don’t like it, but it’s some income. I didn’t like it when I was working here, but I had to support my family.
Blanchard said it’s time for corporations to “stop using the poor man, the poor woman, just to get your luxury yacht.”
“It’s time for us, as people, to come together as one, work together, love one another, help one another.”
Blanchard then gave thanks to the Rev. Tommy Legrand for his help through the years, and her own pastor, Dian Griffin Jackson for being an inspiration.
On that fateful day, Blanchard said she saw the name of Jesus in her head “and it turned to musical notes.”
“My children went across my forehead,” Blanchard continued. “I wanted to live for my kids … not for me, just for them — so that they could have a future. And I tried to instill in them ‘get your education, so you won’t have to work in no chicken factory.’
“Maybe y’all think I’m ranting and raving,” Blanchard said. “And if you don’t rant and rave, you ain’t gonna get nothing done!”
For survivor Annette Zimmerman, being on the grounds of where the tragic event took place, “it’s still just as fresh.”
“As beautiful as this memorial site is and as pretty as the trees are, and the monument … certain steps I make, certain areas I step in … my body goes right back to that day,” Zimmerman said following the service.
She said now-retired Fire Chief Calvin White, who was a captain with the Hamlet Fire Department at the time, probably doesn’t know, but she remembers his face was one of the first she saw when she came to, across the street.
Imperial Foods survivor Annette Zimmerman reads a poem as Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey looks on.
Zimmerman was the first of the two survivors to speak at the service, reading a poem she wrote for the occasion:
“ … Thirty years of tears. Thirty years of pain.
Thirty years of anguish, but none of it in vain.
The world took notice that day, our voices have been heard.
The injustices of this tragedy impacted workplace policies, word for word.
Who goes to work to die?
Not him, not her, certainly not I …”
The survivors at Friday’s service didn’t just include the workers who made it out, but also the family members of those who didn’t.
Michael Banks was six years old when his mother, Margaret Banks was killed in the fire.
He also has a younger sister, whose father was previously killed in Winston-Salem, so she never knew either of her parents.
Banks and his sister were raised by their grandparents.
For him, the memorial service provided closure.
“I think they tried to do everything (they could),” Banks said of the first responders at the scene. “I appreciate everything they did for the ones they did save … I’m good. I don’t hold no ill feelings … maybe early on in my life I might have … but now … closure.”
Zimmerman said the service was an emotional roller coaster.
“(I) feel good seeing people coming out and seeing some people that I haven’t seen in quite a while and being able to just reconnect — and then seeing those strangers coming up and just acknowledging what happened makes me feel good.”
But, Zimmerman added, when she gets home and settles in to “soak in the day, it’ll be like a whole ball of tears and shakes and crying out, simply because I held it in for so long.”
Zimmerman still lives in Richmond County and said she visits the site weekly, as it’s right down the road from her church.
She may not always get out, but she always stops.
“I like to come out and talk to Margaret and Brenda,” Zimmerman said. “They’re not here physically, and I’m sure their bodies were gone from here that day, but this was our spot.”
Zimmerman said she hopes what happened on that day, 30 years ago, that government officials stick with the changes “and make sure we don’t go backwards.”
“Because sometimes it seems like we’re just going backwards and if we go backwards, then everything was in vain.”