Hamlet fire defines and divides a town

Staff WriterSeptember 4, 2011 

— On a hunk of pink granite erected as a memorial on the site of the Imperial Food Products chicken processing plant, where 25 people died in a fire 20 years ago, the City of Hamlet and its citizens etched a promise: "We will never forget."

Many of them wouldn't mind if the rest of the world did.

Though there have been workplace disasters in which many more victims were killed or injured, the Imperial Food fire became notorious because when it happened, seven of the building's nine exit doors were locked or blocked, trapping people inside with smoke so thick and toxic it brought them down in one or two breaths.

For years afterward, as Lenna McLean traveled the country setting up her booth at antiques fairs, she would tell people she was from Hamlet, N.C., and they would say, "Ohhh, that's where all those people got burned to death in that chicken plant fire."

"It just broke my heart," said McLean, 76, who has lived in Hamlet most of her life.

Conscious of how a town's image can affect its prospects for attracting new residents and industry, local leaders have worked for the past decade to erase the soot-colored stain on Hamlet's name. Starting with the belated demolition, in 2001, of the burned-out Imperial Food building itself, the town has spent at least $13 million in state and federal grants beautifying blighted areas near the site and trying to divert attention from the more recent history of the fire to Hamlet's 19th century origins as a railroad hub.

Around the pink granite memorial is a simple park dedicated to those who died and the dozens who were injured in the fire. The South Hamlet neighborhood beyond it has new sidewalks, several renovated homes and a spruced-up sports field that draws children and their parents who never used to come to this part of town.

The crown jewel of the city's redevelopment efforts, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad depot, a three-story Victorian passenger station, has been relocated, restored and reopened as a museum. Twenty thousand people are expected to come to the annual Seaboard Festival in October.

The town is holding its own in population (about 6,500), is financially sound and still has its own library.

"Many small towns would love to be in our position," said Marchell David, town manager.

But just as starkly as the town is split by the railroad lines it grew up around, the people of Hamlet still seemed divided on how to think of the disaster at Imperial Food as the 20th anniversary of the fire approached. David said that as town officials considered whether to hold a formal ceremony, they heard from both sides.

"So many of the families said, 'You're reopening that wound that had healed,' " she said. "We haven't forgotten, and we won't forget. But how far do you go out and do something publicly, and pick at that scab?"

Padlocked doors

The fire on Sept. 3, 1991, was one of many disasters of larger and smaller scale to befall Hamlet.

A 1906 train wreck a mile outside of town killed 29 people, and eight people died when a passenger train collided head-on with a freight train in 1911. The rails were busy in that era; by 1924, according to exhibits in the museum, a passenger train came through Hamlet once an hour, on average.

In addition to Seaboard, which once employed as many as 700 people in its huge rail yard, Hamlet and neighboring Rockingham also once had a thriving textile industry.

Most of the railroad jobs left in the 1950s, the textile jobs in the 1980s and 1990s. Even the Hamlet manufacturing branch of MelloButtercup ice cream shut down, leaving a 30,000-square-foot building into which Imperial Food would move.

The plant had been there 11 years, working more than 200 people in two shifts, marinating, breading and frying chicken tenders for fast-food restaurants and grocery stores in the late summer of 1991.

The company was owned by Emmett Roe, from Georgia, whose sons and daughter also were involved in the business. Legal documents would later show that Roe personally directed the padlocking of doors on the building. It was never clear whether that was to keep flies out, as the Roes said, or chicken-pilfering employees in, as workers claimed.

State safety inspectors had never been to the plant.

Ada Blanchard had seen things happen at Imperial that she didn't think were right, but says she and others kept their mouths shut because they feared if they spoke out they would be fired.

"A lot of us was afraid," Blanchard said. "We was trying to do the best we could with our families and keep our jobs."

Workers speak out

The morning of the fire, a worker was making a repair to a leaking hydraulic line that ran the conveyor that took prepared chicken to a giant vat of boiling oil, where it would be cooked. The line came loose from its connection, spewing more than 50 gallons of pressurized hydraulic fluid, which was ignited by the gas burners for the frying vat.

A fireball erupted. The fire immediately went into the ceiling and began spreading through the building, generating poisonous black smoke. The power went out, plunging terrified, disoriented workers into pitch dark as they tried to escape.

In addition to the padlocks on doors, the loading dock was blocked by a truck and another opening was barricaded by a trash bin.

Blanchard ended up in the Dumpster, and someone eventually pulled her out. She was taken to the hospital, where she went into cardiac arrest and one of her lungs collapsed.

Doctors said the fire scorched her vocal cords, and Blanchard couldn't talk well for a while. But when she got her voice back, she used it to speak out on worker safety, including the need for a law to keep employers from punishing whistle-blowers.

Maybe that made people in Hamlet angry, Blanchard said, to have their disaster used as an example for the nation of what not to do.

"I guess they want people not to think of Hamlet as 'The place where that plant caught fire and all those people died,' " said Annette Zimmerman, who also was injured in the fire. "They don't want to be that place."

The fire prompted North Carolina to levy the highest fine for workplace safety violations in state history: $808,150, a record that stands to this day. The company filed for bankruptcy and didn't pay any of the fine. Emmett Roe, who pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 19 years in prison, served 41/2 years and returned to Georgia.

Moments of silence

As much as others might like to forget the fire, Zimmerman can't get it out of her mind for long. Years of counseling helped her to understand that what she feels is survivor guilt, but it didn't make it go away.

Insurance settlements didn't make everything right, either. More than $30 million from various lawsuits was divided among more than 100 claimants and their lawyers. Blanchard, Zimmerman and many others got settlements in the tens of thousands of dollars. There was a flurry of house- and car-buying, followed a few years later by a flurry of repossessions.

Woodrow Gunter, a Rockingham attorney who represented 10 clients in lawsuits over the Imperial fire, helped set up a scholarship fund through Richmond Community College for the 49 children who lost a parent in the tragedy. Five or six students took advantage of the scholarships over the past 20 years, Gunter said. In March, he and the fund's other administrators closed the account and gave the $2,100 balance to another scholarship program.

For most of the injured, workers' compensation quit paying for medical care long ago, though respiratory ailments, lingering muscular injuries and cognitive impairments are common, survivors say. Zimmerman, who fell down in the chaos of the fire and was trampled, has had multiple surgeries on her back and neck and has been told she needs more operations to ease her constant pain.

An annuity she set up with some of her settlement money has run out. She lives on about $700 a month in disability payments, and less than $100 a week she earns working in a law office in Laurinburg.

Though she often forgets where she is going or what she's doing, Zimmerman doesn't think she'll forget the Imperial Food fire.

She, Blanchard and other survivors held their own ceremony Saturday with a Scripture reading and a prayer at the memorial they helped pay for. It's about a tenth of a mile from a nearly identical one put up by the city. Both were erected for the first anniversary of the fire, but even then there was disagreement over how to mark the occasion.

Jesse Jackson wanted to speak on the anniversary, and while some survivors welcomed him and his pro-labor message, town officials and others thought it inappropriate. So both groups had granite markers carved, and Jackson spoke at the private one.

This year, the town decided to do something more low-key. Around 8:15 a.m. Saturday, the time the fire broke out, it held an official moment of silence.

"They've been silent," Zimmerman said, "for 20 years."

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service