The fire at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, 20 years ago today, is the benchmark by which all NC workplace accidents are measured. Read The N&O's original coverage below.
A hydraulic line on a deep-fat fryer ruptured the morning of Sept. 3, igniting a fire that filled Imperial's Hamlet plant with toxic smoke. In minutes, 25 people were killed and 56 injured.
A powerful mix of elements combined at Imperial: neglect by regulators, indifference about safety on the part of plant managers and a passive attitude among employees. And the same forces that exploded in Hamlet are in play at other seldom-inspected, low-paying North Carolina workplaces.
The fire exposed more than just a rickety safety system. It revealed the ugly underside of the state's economy, where poor, unskilled workers afraid of losing their jobs often endure miserable, unsafe working conditions without pushing for change.
In the days, weeks and months after the fire, leaders in Richmond County and Raleigh said they never knew much about Imperial.
But if they had been looking, they might have seen the fire coming.
In 18 years of operation in five states, Imperial owner Emmett J. Roe had left warning signs -- fires at other plants, run-ins with federal inspectors and money trouble that pushed the company into insolvency.
During Imperial's 11 years in Hamlet, however, not a single federal, state or local official looked for fire and safety violations.
If they had, they might have ordered Imperial to clear locked and blocked exits that trapped workers who died in the fire. They might have learned that the plant had no evacuation plan. And they might have found out that Imperial workers had never had a fire drill.