HAMLET — Next week, city leaders will remember the deadliest industrial disaster in Richmond County’s — and the state’s —history.
On Sept. 3, 1991, a fire broke out at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant on Bridges Street after a hydraulic line ruptured above a fryer. Workers inside the plant struggled in darkness through smoke and flames — only to discover the emergency exits were chained shut from the outside.
The fire killed 25 workers and injured 56.
Dobbins Heights Mayor Antonio Blue said he remembers exactly where he was the day of the fire.
“For one, I was stationed in Izmir, Turkey,” he recalled. “I was sitting in a facility eating breakfast and I was watching TV and one of my friends came in and said, ‘Your home town is in the news.’ That September day I was watching it on the news.
“I immediately called home and checked on my dad, because he carried some people to work there each morning and I was worried about him,” Blue continued. “He had just gotten back from dropping a lady off there for work.”
Hamlet City Manager Marcus Abernethy said there are three historic markers in the city to remind the community of the tragic industrial fire that claimed so many lives.
“The first was set up at the Hamlet City Lake and is located between the Senior Center and the caboose, at the edge of the parking lot,” he said. “The second one is located on the intersection of Bridges Street and U.S. 74, and the third is on the former site of Imperial Foods itself, also on Bridges Street but at the other end.”
Abernethy explained that the lot where Imperial Foods once sat is now owned by the state, but “the city maintains the grounds as far as cutting the grass.”
“There are some brick columns and street lights,” he said of the site. “And 25 crepe myrtles that were planted for each of the victims of the fire, and a memorial with a sidewalk leading to it.”
As for the memorial service, which will be held Sept. 1 at 10 a.m. at Cole Auditorium, Abernethy announced that a handful of people will speak briefly before the names of all 25 workers who died are read.
“We’ll also have candles lit, 25 of them — one for each victim of the fire as each name is read,” he said. “Volunteers in the community, particularly from St. Mary’s Gospel Choir, have offered to sing a few songs.”
Abernethy said Mayor Bill Bayless will deliver opening remarks and Abbie Covington — who was mayor at the time of the fire — will speak at the memorial service along, with North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin and Dr. Fred McQueen, who was the medical examiner that day. The Rev. Tommy Legrand and Bishop Marvin Taylor will deliver the invocation and benediction, respectively.
Abernethy added that the event is open to the public and he hopes many people from the community will attend.
“I’m really glad to have the community’s support at a time like this,” he said. “There seems to be symbolism with it being the 25th year and that there were 25 victims of the fire. We’re calling it the ‘25th Year in Remembrance of the Imperial Foods Fire.’ I hope the service helps community members and guests heal.”
One disturbing detail Abernethy said is often overlooked involves the impact the loss of those 25 workers had on numerous families.
“I watched a video,” he recalled. “And it explained that there were 19 mothers of the 25 victims, and a total of 56 children lost a parent to the fire.”
In 1992, at age 65, Imperial Foods owner Emmett Roe pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety Division of Adult Correction. He was sentenced to 19 years and 11 months in prison but was released only four years later. He was the only one convicted in the case.
In a 2015 email from North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry to the Daily Journal, she writes, “The tragic fire at Imperial Foods in Hamlet in 1991 led to major reform in 1992 by the N.C. General Assembly. The reform included an expansion of the number of OSH compliance officers, enforcement focus on high-risk industries and the authorization of fines to be levied against governmental entities for noncompliance.”
Abernethy said that while the service is “certainly dedicated to the employees of Imperial Foods and those who lost their lives that day, it’s also dedicated to the families of the victims, the survivors and the people that gave their time during and after this tragedy.”
The city is purchasing three flower baskets for the three memorial sites, to be placed at each site after the service.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.