Town Is Left Alone With Its Grief, Pain 2 Months After Fire Fatal to 25 : Tragedy: First, Hamlet, N.C., lost its loved ones; now the survivors have lost their jobs. The company is hovering near insolvency and employee benefits are in jeopardy.

WASHINGTON POST

The first of the 25 bodies brought out of the poultry factory that morning was Peggy Fairley Anderson's. Everybody in town seemed to know her. Most people spoke of her as just Peggy Fairley. She was 50 and she was much loved in the small community of 6,200, so at her wake, Nelson Funeral Service--which is on Bridges Street, the same street as the poultry processing plant--was packed with mourners.

At the Family Hour, one of Peggy's daughters, a small woman of perhaps no more than 80 pounds, started to address the body: "Wake up, Momma." Her brothers and sisters and others in the family tried to console her. She was not to be consoled. "Wake up, Momma," the grown daughter kept saying. Before anyone could stop her, she managed to get her arms under the body and began to lift it out of the casket. She seemed to be trying to bring her mother to her bosom. One of her brothers and one of the funeral directors pulled her to the floor and held her there, telling her it would be all right.

Harvey Knotts was relating this. He is one of the proprietors of Nelson Funeral Service, which is in one of the black sections of Hamlet, just down from the old, rattling Seaboard Air Line Railway, which long before poultry processors ever showed up was so vital to the economic life and psychological well being of this town. Nelson handled the burials of four of the Imperial Food Products workers who died on Sept. 3 in an almost unimaginably grotesque early-morning flash fire that, for a moment anyway, put a little Carolina Sandhills burg smack onto Page 1 of the world.

"You're asking the extent of this whole thing on us as a community?" Knotts said, shaking his head. "Well, I witnessed that scene. I've directed lots of funerals in Hamlet. I began to lose it myself that night. . . . It was the unnecessariness of it all, if that's a word. . . . It's not like getting over the death of an elderly parent. There was an unnatural air about it. That's what the shock is about."

And, in a way, that is what this story is about. Not the first waves of shock, from which the whole country seemed to reel a little after reading about padlocked doors and blocked exits and $5.50-an-hour employees clawing at them from the inside. But the aftershock, the smaller waves, the almost hidden ones, from which a town still trembles, though perhaps not at first look.

It's about a place and a people not as they were then, in the first hours, but as they are now, weeks later, alone again--or mostly so--with their pain.

The fireball struck that Tuesday about 8:20 a.m. in a 33,000-square-foot windowless assortment of adjoining brick boxes hard by the railroad tracks. In effect, the plant was a maze of large rooms separated by movable walls. Once it was the home of the Buttercup Ice Cream Co. So a building's history went from ice to fire.

After it happened, somebody from New York sent stamps--that was what she had.

Campbell Soup donated 300 cases.

Stanley Hand Tools in Charlotte gave $2,500.

The town library became the Victims' Assistance Center.

For 11 years chicken parts were processed in the non-union and just-above-minimum-wage workplace. They were processed for fast-food restaurants, up north and other places. The employees, who came from all over Richmond County, worked in a kind of assembly line of fowl: cutting, cleaning, trimming, cooking, packaging, freezing. It is an old story in the hard-used and labor-intensive rural South: Out-of-town employer comes in and sops up whatever cheap labor is at hand--gladly at hand, because there is so little else. Imperial Food Products is headquartered in Atlanta.

Eighteen of the dead were women, many of them young single mothers.

At least 11 school-age children lost a mother or father.

There was no sprinkler system. The place had never had a state inspection.

Twenty-five died and more than 50 were injured, some of them critically. Of the approximately 90 workers in the plant at the time of the fire, fewer than a dozen escaped physical harm.

In the days following, there were signs all over town, outside churches and graveyards, that said: SLOW. FUNERAL.

It's a burn whose outer layer has scabbed over. The real damage is below the surface.

But how did it happen? A ruptured oil line near a huge deep-fat fryer. The answer--provided by state investigators in a report three days afterward--is that a hydraulic line 5 feet above the plant's concrete floor broke, spewing oil in several directions but most lethally toward a gas-fueled cooker. The oil spewed at a pressure of about 800 pounds per square inch, creating a fireball.

But it was smoke inhalation, not so much the flames, that killed the workers.

"It was like closing your eyes and putting your hands over your face," one of the wire services quoted a firefighter as saying in the first hours. Another from-the-scene dispatch said: "Others died as they groped, gasping in the dark for escape."

Helicopters (they were carrying the injured to Charlotte and Chapel Hill and Durham as well as to a burn unit in Winston-Salem) made Bridges Street look like a scene from the Vietnam War. It was the upswirl of dust and wind; it was the acrid smell; it was the menacing THUNK of rotary blades.

Investigators, in the preliminary report, said that approximately 40 of the 90 workers tried to escape through a door secured by deadbolts on the outside. "They could not have gotten through that door with a battering ram," Tim Bradley, deputy commissioner of the fire and rescue division of the state insurance department, told the Washington Post.

The state report found that at least two fire exits in the plant were locked, and, in addition, a loading dock was blocked by a truck and a large trash bin. The report concluded that if doors had not been locked or blocked, some of the 25 victims could have survived.

Recently those who survived, and the 125 or so others who weren't at work on that shift, were informed by letter that the company will not reopen the Hamlet plant. Additionally, a sister plant in Georgia has been closed. Imperial Food Products is facing bankruptcy. Court records in Atlanta indicate that the owners are millions of dollars in debt to a bank in Pennsylvania.

There's been much talk in Carolina about the filing of criminal-negligence charges against the owners, but to date this hasn't happened.

Authorities are awaiting a full report from the State Bureau of Investigation and other agencies. Questions of locked doors and blocked exits, and allegations of negligent maintenance and shoddy fire-prevention practices, will be key elements in the report, which is due soon. The SBI is known to be interviewing all first-shift survivors.

Some Carolina legal experts have said that the most likely charge would be involuntary manslaughter. Some victims' families have called that an outrage; industrial murder is what it really was, they say.

If Imperial does seek protection from its creditors under bankruptcy laws, this almost certainly will delay, maybe permanently, any legal settlements to the families of victims. Several suits have been filed; others are expected.

Why were some of the exit doors locked in the first place? That is still not entirely clear. But scores in Hamlet will tell you that the reason they were locked is because the plant managers absolutely believed their employees were stealing them blind--not money but chicken parts.

On the day after the fire, one of the photographs carried by newspapers across the country was of the son of the owner of the company at a press conference with the fire chief and mayor. That son's name is Brad Roe, 26, the operations manager of the plant, where he had worked every summer since his 13th birthday. He stood up at the 3 o'clock press conference on Sept. 3 in a sleeveless jersey. Some people complained that he showed disrespect for the dead by not wearing a shirt.

The Roe family could not be reached for this story, and others at the small company refused to speak for the record.

But Abbie Covington is talking. She's the mayor. She's hurting for her town and she feels what happened was inexcusable. But she also believes that the Roes are personally devastated.

"The fact that (several) doors were locked is a terrible thing," she said. "That's it. They're going to have to be punished for it. I don't back up from it a minute. But I am satisfied in my own mind that they never, ever in a million years, thought that something like this would happen. . . .

"The fact is, Brad is the one who raced to the fire department. You know why he had an undershirt on? I'll tell you. Because he'd been helping get people out. He was half crazy about it. His outer shirt was covered with soot and char. The truth is, I don't think there's anything they can ever do to him he won't do to himself. It's killing him; that's what I believe."

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