Home / General / This Day in Labor History: September 3, 1991

This Day in Labor History: September 3, 1991

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On September 3, 1991, a chicken factory in Hamlet, North Carolina caught of fire thanks to nonexistent safety procedures, killing 25 workers and injuring another 55. This was the largest workplace disaster in North Carolina history. This entirely avoidable accident was reminiscent of workplace disasters of the past, with open employer contempt for safety regulations and the lives of their workers.

The building where the chicken factory was located was built in the early twentieth century and had been used in various food processing operations in the past, including as an ice cream factory. In 1980, it was purchased by Imperial Foods. This was a company was a terrible safety reputation in its other plants. Its plant in Moosic, Pennsylvania was cited for managers locking exit doors. Its Cumming, Georgia plant had a fire in 1989 that caused over $1 million in damage, although no fatalities. The corporate hostility to basic safety procedures would be repeated in Hamlet. The factory had no fire alarm system. The factory was used to process chicken for fast food restaurants and pre-frozen products for grocery stores. That meant cutting, bagging, weighing, and, most importantly for this story, frying it. About three-quarters of the workers were African-Americans. Hamlet is a small town close to the South Carolina border and the worker histories reflected that. Many of these workers had grown up doing farm work in the area and for some, this was their first factory job.

Imperial’s CEO Emmett Roe had moved from Pennsylvania to the South in order to bust the unions in his plants there and move to a state with a “more favorable regulatory climate,” i.e., the kind of state that won’t inspect your factories or enforce safety violations. Among other states, he chose North Carolina. A state in bed with the agricultural industry if there ever was one, North Carolina regulators never inspected the factory because the budget for inspections was minuscule. In 11 years of operation, it received no fire inspections. The factory did undergo repeated inspections from the company’s poultry inspector. Workers complained about the terrible smell and quality of meat, with at least one telling an inspector that the meat processed into chicken nuggets was particularly awful. According to one survivor of the fire, the plant managers locked the door to stop workers from stealing chicken. This was the same excuse sweatshop managers gave to locking the doors at Triangle when that disaster killed 146 workers in 1911.

The fire began when the deep fryer caught fire after a hydraulic line to a cooking vat failed, with obvious problems with it not found because of the company’s indifferent safety culture. It spread very quickly thanks to a combination of burning cooking oil, insulation, and exploding gas lines hanging from the ceiling. It didn’t help that all of the phones inside the building were nonfunctional. The workers at the front of the plant all managed to get out. But at the back of the plant the company did not place any fire alarms. Moreover, Imperial managers not only locked all the exits but sealed the windows as well. Those workers had nowhere to go. As an old plant, it was a maze of paths inside. The smoke meant they couldn’t find their way to the front. They were doomed. Like at Triangle, which this fire reminded many of, a few workers did get out the back by breaking open a locked loading bay, but most died. On one door, near charred bodies, blackened footprints could still be seen, signs of the desperate attempt to escape. Eighteen of the dead were women. Most of the dead were African-American.

Much later, survivor Lily Davis remembered the day of the fire:

“When I woke up that morning on the day of the fire, I had said to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m going to work today,” she said. “But I knew there was a holiday coming up and if I didn’t go to work that morning I wouldn’t get paid for the holiday. I was at the plant and had changed into my white coat. Everybody was saying they didn’t want to come to work either. They wanted a longer time off, but if we hadn’t gone in, we wouldn’t have gotten paid for the holiday.”

“I went down to the line where the fire happened before it happened,” Davis said. “That was where you weigh the chicken. And my boss man came up and said, ‘I want you to lay out tenders today.’ I told him I didn’t want to go, and he walked off. But then he came back and saw I was still there, put his hands on his hips and gave me this look, so I went.”

“It was always cold in there and those tenders come right out of the refrigerator,” she said. “After a while, your legs feel like they’re not even there. Then all of a sudden the lights went out and we heard somebody yelling, ‘Y’all need to get out of here! This place is on fire!”

Davis said the next thing she knew, the lady who managed the tenders line had gotten everyone to hold hands and told them they would all go out together.

“We were down near the floor and nobody could see,” Davis said. “But we finally got there when somebody yelled, ‘The door is locked! We can’t get out!”

Davis said that’s when the hand-holding stopped. People began to panic, running into other parts of the plant in search of a way out. But it was dark, she said.

“I said, ‘Lord, what am I going to do? How can I get out of here?” Davis said. “And I heard a voice to my right that said, ‘Just sit down right here where you are.’ So I said, ‘What in the world can I do from right here? I can’t see. If only I had some light I could get out.’ And that voice said, ‘You can pray.’”

Davis said she sat down on the floor and began to pray. She doesn’t remember how long she prayed or what she was praying.

“Then a hole opened up in the ceiling,” she said. “I remember feeling so peaceful and good, and then I just fell asleep.”

Davis does not remember anything specific to the plant after that moment.

There was both a state and a federal investigation of the fire. The state passed the buck. The state labor commissioner said that his department did not have enough money (true, thanks to the notoriously anti-labor North Carolina legislature. Even today, NC has the lowest union density rate in the nation. He also blamed the federal government for not enforcing safety standards (OK, but that is indeed passing the buck).

Three men faced charges for the fire. Imperial Foods owner Emmett Roe, his son, and the plant manager. They all took plea bargains. Since Roe had personally directed the locking of the doors, he received a prison sentence of nearly 20 years, less than a year for each of the murders he committed. He served four years in prison. Imperial Foods also received an $800,000 fine. The factory was never reopened. 215 people lost their jobs. The federal government ordered North Carolina to improve its worker safety legislation or the government would do it for them. This did lead to the passage of 14 new laws, including a whistleblower law, as well as a near doubling of state workplace safety inspectors.

Memorializing the deaths also faulted along state lines. For the survivors, this was not only a labor rights issue, but a civil rights issue. They invited Jesse Jackson to the town to speak at the memorial. For Hamlet’s conservative white elite, Jackson was anathema. So there were two memorial services with two monuments next to each other.

The factory remains were bulldozed in 2001 because of the psychological damage it caused the survivors and the firefighters who saw it. Eight survivors lived within viewing distance of it.

Here is a 22 minute film from 1994 on the fire and its survivors.

The Hamlet fire also spawned this Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra song.

This is the 189th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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