Fire engulfed a chicken processing plant Tuesday, creating an inferno in which panicked workers were trapped by blocked or locked doors, witnesses said. Authorities said 25 people were killed and 40 were injured.
“They were screaming: ‘Let me out.’ They were beating on the door,” passerby Sam Breeden said. “The people could not force the door open.”
Blackened footprints could be seen later on a door where workers tried to kick their way out to escape the flames.
Witnesses said a frying machine at the Imperial Food Products plant caught fire at about 8:30 a.m. The company makes chicken nuggets and marinated chicken breasts that are sold at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores.
The 11-year-old plant had never been inspected by state safety officials, said Charles Jeffress, assistant commissioner of the North Carolina labor department.
“I’m sure that there are many others” that have not been inspected, Jeffress said. He said the state does not have enough inspectors to get to every plant and noted that the state never received a safety complaint about the Imperial facility.
The interior of the building was gutted. Renee Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, said 25 people were confirmed dead. Hospitals in the area reported at least 40 injured.
A woman who was in the canteen said people rushed in yelling: “Fire! Fire!” The door from the canteen to the outside was locked and a man had to break the door open so those inside could escape, she said.
Carolyn Rainwater, a plant worker, said she heard people screaming and, “I saw a big puff of black smoke and I started running for the back door.” The door was blocked by a delivery truck and the workers had to wait for it to be moved, she said.
“When I arrived, I didn’t have hope for anybody coming out of here,” said a police officer who would not give his name. “They’re beating all the odds.”
The officer was trying to control a growing crowd of worried relatives and friends.
Several witnesses said employees could not escape because of locked doors.
O’Neil Patrick, who was walking near the plant, said only one door was open and that was in the front of the building.
He said he could hear people screaming on the other side of a locked door and inside the truck that was backed up to a loading dock door.
Brad Roe, operations manager and the son of owner Emmett J. Roe, said he did not know if doors were locked.
“I can’t tell you right now,” he said. “But there were plenty of doors that were open.”
He said he believed the building has nine doors. “Certain doors are locked at certain times,” he said. “I can’t tell you which doors were locked, if any were locked.”
Imperial Food employs about 200 people, company officials said. About 90 workers were inside the building when the fire broke out.
Hamlet Fire Chief David Fuller said authorities are looking into the deep-fat fryer as a possible cause. Asked if there had been previous problems with the fryer, Roe said: “Nothing more than natural breakdowns and maintenance. Nothing that we believe would start a fire.”
The fryer is 26 feet long and is located in the middle of the 30,000-square-foot plant. It is fueled by natural gas.
Breeden, who was passing by the building, said he saw his sister-in-law’s head sticking out of a small window that was not big enough for her or others to get through.
He said he held her head so she could get air until workers broke down the door. The sister-in-law, Mattie Fairley, was hospitalized in stable condition.
“I felt helpless,” Breeden said. “When you know people’s lives are in danger and you can’t do anything to get them out, it’s a helpless feeling.”
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Abbie Covington began to cry.
“I can’t describe my reaction,” she said. “I don’t know of anything else that’s happened in this town that’s been as heartbreaking.”
Hamlet is a town of 6,900 in south-central North Carolina, about 70 miles southeast of Charlotte.