Monday, 30 August 2021 20:16

Hamlet to remember victims on 30th anniversary of Imperial Foods tragedy

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The 30th anniversary of the devastating Imperial Foods fire will be marked with a ceremony at the site of the former plant on Friday. The 30th anniversary of the devastating Imperial Foods fire will be marked with a ceremony at the site of the former plant on Friday. Leah Melvin - Richmond Observer

HAMLET — Nearly 30 years ago, 25 people lost their lives in the worst industrial disaster in North Carolina history: the Imperial Foods fire.

Those victims will be remembered in a special ceremony on Sept. 3 — the anniversary of the fatal incident.

The service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the site of the former Imperial Foods processing plant, which has since been turned into a memorial for the victims.

Slated to speak are Dr. Tommy Legrand, Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey and Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor of nearby Stanly County.

On Sept. 3, 1991, a ruptured hydraulic line above a fryer was the cause of the fire — but it was dangerous working conditions that led to so many deaths and injuries.

According to multiple reports, the plant’s owner, Emmet Rowe, had padlocked the doors of the building, allegedly to keep employees from stealing food.

The plant’s phone lines were also inoperable, causing the plant manager to have to drive to the Hamlet Fire Department.

According to the FEMA report:

"A trailer was backed into the loading dock cutting off all exiting through this area. 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."

In the plant’s 11 years of operation, the North Carolina Department of Labor and its Occupational Safety and Health Division never conducted an inspection until after the fire, according to a lawsuit.

Following that inspection, multiple safety violations were found “including the plant's inadequate and blocked exits and inadequate fire suppression system.”

The victims of the fire were:

  • Josephine Barrington
  • Peggy Anderson
  • Mary Lillian Wall
  • Philip R. Dawkins
  • Minnie Mae Thompson
  • Janice Marie Wall Lynch
  • Elizabeth Ann Bellamy
  • Cynthia S. Wall
  • Josie M. Coulter
  • Bertha Jarrell
  • John Robert Gagnon
  • Rose Marie Gibson Peele
  • Mary Alice Arnold Quick
  • Fred Barrington Jr.
  • Martha A. Ratliff
  • Gail V. Campbell
  • Rosie Ann Chambers
  • Michael Morrison
  • Rose Lynette Wilkins
  • Brenda Gail Kelly
  • David Michael Albright
  • Margaret Banks
  • Donald Bruce Rich
  • Jeffrey Antonia Webb
  • Cynthia Marie Ratliff

In addition, more than 50 employees were injured “by burns, blindness, respiratory disease from smoke inhalation, neurological damage and post-traumatic stress disorder,” according to a 2020 blog article at the National Association of Safety Professionals website.

(Note: The RO found a discrepancy in the number of people injured. The FEMA report lists 54; other articles report 55 or 56.)

Also according to the NASP article, only 11 employees made it out unharmed.

The event is burned into the memories of the survivors, family members and first responders who were at the scene.

About a year after the fire, Roe was convicted of involuntary manslaughter — records with the N.C. Department of Public Safety Division of Adult Correction show only two counts — and was sentenced to 19 years and 11 months. However, records show he served fewer than five years.

The 25th anniversary was marked with a ceremony at Cole Auditorium.