Fire Burns in Survivors’ Memories Year After 25 Deaths at N.C. Plant : Tragedy: Anger smolders over safety lapses at chicken processing facility where victims were trapped behind locked doors.


A year later, the screaming still resounds and the fire still burns in Hamlet’s memory.

Mildred Moates remembers the smoke and flames of the chicken processing plant. She fell in the darkness and was trampled by desperate co-workers. When she was rescued, unconscious, she had footprints on her body.

Aquanetta Fairley remembers Jeff Webb--her fiance, the father of her child. He escaped from the burning plant, but returned again and again to rescue colleagues, searching in vain for Fairley’s aunt, Peggy Anderson. In the end, they were among the 25 who died.

Others remember the 240 jobs that the Imperial Food Products Inc. plant once provided--hard jobs, unpleasant jobs, jobs that paid only $5 to $8 an hour, but jobs that are hard to come by in this poor town.


Try as they might to forget, the burned-out carcass of the plant reminds them. It is still marked by yellow police tape, twisted and fluttering in the breeze. A back door is open, still stamped with Bobby Quick’s boot prints.

On a table inside are forgotten Thermos bottles, like the one Gloria (Tootsie) Malachi used that day as she tried to break the lock and escape. She failed, but the lock finally gave way to Quick’s flying kicks.


Malachi lives two doors down. “I get scared when I go by the plant,” she said. “This affected my mind. I have bad headaches. I have problems with my back. . . . Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have a future.”

On Sept. 3, 1991, the plant’s production line broke down. A repairman was brought in; someone neglected to turn off the burners that heated a vat for frying chicken. A hydraulic line burst, spraying flammable fluid on the burners, setting off a 30-second fireball, filling the plant with toxic smoke.

In the months that followed:

* Imperial Food Products owner Emmett J. Roe, his 28-year-old son, Brad, and another company manager were charged with 25 counts each of involuntary manslaughter and are awaiting trial. Roe, 65, and his son also are named in 19 lawsuits.

* Two state agencies and one private firm forced Imperial Food Products into federal bankruptcy court. What’s left of the company, including the building in Hamlet, remains idle.


* The state Labor Department fined the company for safety violations--the doors were locked, it had no sprinklers or fire alarms--and the U.S. Labor Department threatened a takeover of the state’s workplace safety program.

* State lawmakers enacted 12 bills to hire new inspectors and support staff, protect employees who report safety violations, increase fines and require accident-prone businesses to institute safety programs.

But in other ways, little has changed on Bridges Street, tucked away beside railroad tracks that bisect this town of 6,200 near the South Carolina line.

No other company has stepped in to become a major employer in Hamlet.

“We already had problems, and the fire made it worse,” Mayor Abbie Covington said.


Of the 90 Imperial employees who live in Richmond County, 26 still were drawing unemployment benefits in July. Forty-four enrolled in job-training programs to escape the dead-end jobs they lost in the fire, hoping to becoming nurses, computer operators, truck drivers or accountants.

Mildred Moates, 49, one of the 56 injured in the fire, is not going back to work. Smoke inhalation left her brain-damaged--70% to the right side and 30% to the left side. She lost 90% of her eyesight, leaving her with tunnel vision.

She used to take a hot supper to her husband as he worked nights as a security guard in a paper mill. Now a cousin prepares the family’s evening meal, and her husband goes after it every day. Moates once handled the household chores; now her husband, who suffered a heart attack the day after the fire, takes on most of those responsibilities.


Moates raised three sons. Now her youngest and her husband must help her eat, dress and bathe. She can’t coordinate her hands and arms. She can speak only in simple phrases.

Doctors had told her husband she had a 2% to 5% chance of surviving. She defied them. “I’m just glad to be alive,” she said.


Others touched by the disaster still struggle with it.

Teresa Ellerbee, 19, lives with her baby in the home of a former neighbor and tries to cope with the death of her mother, Minnie Mae Thompson. She rarely leaves the house and has no plans to attend college.

“I can’t work now,” she said in a whisper as she sat on the front porch. “It’s too hard.”

Aquanetta Fairley raises Jeff Webb’s daughter, Shawnta, one of 49 children who lost parents in the fire. Twenty were orphaned.

“I’m still bitter because he’s gone,” Aquanetta Fairley said.

“Jeff and I always had big dreams. He never got to do some of the things he wanted to do, like take Shawnta to Florida to meet Mickey Mouse.”

But one big dream survives: “We both wanted Shawnta to go to college,” she said. “Any money we get will pay for that.”