HAMLET — As tragic as the 1991 Imperial Foods fire was, Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Mike Causey said “a lot of good things” came out of it.
“It shined a spotlight on workplace safety because it gained national attention and the federal government was about to take over much of the inspections process,” Causey said Friday following a memorial service on the 30th anniversary of the fatal fire at the site of the former plant.
According to a Federal Emergency Management Agency report on the fires in Hamlet and another chicken-processing plant in Arkansas from the same year, the nearly 30,000 square-foot building was built in the early 1900s. (See the report as an attachement to this story.)
Imperial had been operating in the building for a little more than a decade and had had a previous fire in 1983.
The report states that in 11 years of operation, the plant had never been inspected by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Something is wrong with that picture,” Causey said.
David Fuller, Hamlet Fire chief at the time, told FEMA that the department didn’t have its own inspectors and relied on one of the three county inspectors for building codes, electrical and plumbing.
The FEMA report states that the fire was caused by a leaking hydraulic line, which had been recently repaired:
“Droplets were bouncing back onto the gas heating plumbs for the cooking vat, which turned them into vapor. The vapors then were going directly into the flame. The vapors had a much lower flashpoint than the liquid hydraulic fluid and therefore rapidly ignited.
… the pressurization of the hydraulic fluid combined with the heat was causing an atomizing of the fuel which in all probability caused an immediate fireball in and around the failed hydraulic line and the heating plumbs.
The ignition of the fuel caused an immediate and very rapid spreading of heavy black smoke throughout the building. Seven workers were trapped between the area of origin and any escapable routes.
In addition to the hydraulic fluid, the fire reached a natural gas regulator that in turn failed and caused an induction of natural gas to the fire increasing the intensity and buildup of toxic gases.”
According to the report, witnesses said the plant was enveloped within two minutes and the smoke was heavy enough to debilitate a person within two breaths. The autopsies showed that “virtually all” of the victims died from smoke inhalation “as opposed to direct flame injury.”
In addition to the smoke, getting out of the plant compounded the problem.
Diagram from the FEMA report
Doors to the plant were locked, reportedly because the owners thought employees were stealing the product. There was also a trailer backed into the loading dock, preventing escape, according to the report, which describes where the bodies of the victims were found:
“One woman became trapped between the compactor seal and the building wall while trying to squeeze through an opening. A number of remaining people in this area went into a large cooler adjacent to the loading dock, but failed to pull the sealed door shut thus allowing smoke infiltration into the cooler. The cooler had the largest single fatality count area with 12 deceased people being removed from this room along with five injured people.
The second largest fatality area were the seven trapped in the processing room between the fire and any escape route. Three additional bodies were found in the trim room area, one of whom was a route salesman who had been filling food machines in the break room. The exterior personnel door in the break room was the other door locked from the outside.”
The FEMA report concluded the the following “Lessons Learned”:
- Life safety codes must be enforced.
- Cooking areas must be separately partitioned from other employee work areas.
- Building exits in wet type operations should have double emergency lighting, one positioned above the door and one low to the floor
- High pressure equipment maintenance and repairs must be limited to factory trained personnel and specifications.
- High pressure equipment in probable incident areas should have built-in catastrophic shut down valves.
- Negative air flow systems in these facilities could enhance safety by being modified to also accomplish smoke evacuation.
- State and Federal inspectors from various departments should be cross-trained.
- Establish a “worry free” line of communications for industry employees.
- The number of OSHA safety inspectors must be increased.
- Emergency exit drills must be incorporated into industry policies.
Causey said state legislators took “quick action” following the fire.
“In 1992, the General Assembly passed sweeping reforms for the Department of Labor and the Department of Insurance on these inspections,” Causey said. “If I remember correctly, the Department of Labor had around 60 inspectors for the whole state, and when this bill was passed, they nearly doubled the number of inspectors.
“I believe they went to 114, just like that,” Causey added with a snap of his fingers.
Causey said it was a shame that it took such a tragedy for elected officials to “do something.”
“Workers, after that, were more willing to come forward and point out ‘ …this is an issue that needs to be addressed,’” Causey said.
The office of the state fire marshal also became more proactive, the commissioner added.
“We’re really on top of that, working with local officials and making sure that our fire inspections and safety inspections are done in a timely manner,” Causey said.
When he was sworn in in 2017 — after winning the election over Hamlet native and incumbent commissioner Wayne Goodwin — Causey said he was “shocked” to learn there were only five inspectors for the state’s fire departments.
“I talked with the legislature and we were able to get three additional inspectors,” he said.
Since the increase, more than 580 fire departments in North Carolina have improved their class ratings, which lowers homeowners’ insurance rates.
Chief Fire Marshal Brian Taylor was a young firefighter in nearby Stanly County when the tragedy occured and he said the event led to his first job as an inspector.
In the mid-90s, Taylor said the code transitioned from a maintenance code with no enforcement power to a construction code with fines and fees for violations.
By educating the community and lawmakers, Taylor said,“My team and I vow to do everything we can to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.”