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, published December 8-11, 1991, 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.
LIFE AND DEATH AT IMPERIAL> BEFORE THE FIRE, IMPERIAL FOOD PRODUCTS WORKERS LABORED AT LOW-PAYING JOBS UNDER CONDITIONS THAT MANY HATED
Reporter: BEN STOCKING Staff writer
HAMLET -- Gail Pouncy stood at the grave of her sister, Elizabeth Ann Bellamy, rearranging some flowers that had fallen into disarray in the weeks since her death in the Imperial Food Products fire.
"She probably wants me to be right there now, " Pouncy said, pointing to the unfilled plot beside Bellamy's grave. "She liked to talk. And she liked company."
Bellamy was buried in a corner of the Sandy Grove Cemetery, a peaceful spot nestled among acres of rolling cotton fields and ramshackle country homes near her hometown of Bennettsville, S.C. Her grave had more flowers on it than any other in the cemetery.
"She got them pretty pink flowers she wanted, " her sister said. "Her favorite color was pink. That's what they buried her in -- a pink dress."
Pouncy took another look at the gravestone. "You know what?" she said. "I'm glad they didn't put Sept. 3 on here. I don't like that date. I don't even like to think about that."
That was the day the fire struck at the Hamlet chicken-processing plant, bringing unimaginable suffering into the lives of people who had already endured their share of hardship.
The people who came to work at Imperial that day -- black and white, young and old, male and female -- shared some unenviable traits: They were unskilled, undereducated and had grown up poor. They had low aspirations and a conviction that they would never find anything much better than a job in a chicken plant, no matter how hard they tried.
Since the fire, Imperial's owner, Emmett J. Roe, has refused repeated requests for interviews. So have his son Brad, who was operations manager at the Hamlet plant, and other family members and company officials.
In the weeks since Sept. 3, people who worked at Imperial have described life inside the plant as tedious and even dangerous. The work was tiring but simple: cutting chicken, breading chicken, packing chicken, frying chicken pieces. And the jobs didn't offer any future -- top pay wasn't much higher than starting pay.
But day after day, more than 200 people came to work at Imperial, which was Hamlet's biggest employer. They came because it beat taking a job in a burger restaurant or a place in the welfare line. They came because they had bills to pay, and because good-paying jobs were hard to come by in Richmond County.
Hard work in 'the hole'
On the day of the fire, the Tuesday after Labor Day, Thomas Oates was one of the first employees to arrive. He walked in the front door at 5:15 a.m., as usual, and headed to the dressing room at the rear of the plant.
He put on his gauze hairnet, blue smock and brown rubber boots. Then he placed his shoes and baseball cap inside his locker, along with his lunch: a plate of leftover meatloaf, field peas, okra and ham that he planned to heat in the microwave during his half-hour break at 11:30.
Oates is a husky, broad-shouldered man with a little extra weight around his midsection, a friendly and articulate man with a ready smile. He and his wife, Delores, rent a small trailer a mile or so from the plant.
For Oates, 37, working at Imperial marked the low point of an unexpected tumble down the economic ladder, a fall that began Aug. 11, 1978, when he had a motorcycle accident. He tore up his knee and was eventually forced to cut short his Army career after 13 years.
He headed back to Hamlet, his hometown, and took a series of mill and factory jobs. He ended up at Imperial because it paid a little better than the $4.75 an hour he was earning packing beds and dressers at the Karel Co., a Hamlet furniture manufacturer.
So each day for the year and a half before the fire, Oates went to work at the chicken plant, a sprawling, windowless mass of red brick and cinder block on Bridges Street, a few blocks from the center of town.
Located just up the street from the Leroy Hubbard Homes, a public housing project where many of the town's poorer residents live, the plant was perfectly situated to attract the workers Imperial needed to perform the various menial tasks associated with chicken processing. Many employees lived close enough to walk to work.
When Oates started at the plant, he was paid $4.85 an hour to load 100-pound bags of flour into a batter machine in the processing room.
It wasn't much money, but it would have to be enough support Oates and his wife. They had just married, and Oates didn't want Delores working any more. Like her parents, she had spent most of her life working in mills and factories, and she had the calluses on her hands to prove it. Her husband wanted her to rest awhile.
His job wasn't easy. With so much chicken to run, the batter machine would consume one bag of flour every 10 minutes or so. Oates came home at the end of the day soaked with sweat, his hair, eyebrows and cheeks coated with flour. His wife told him he looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. She wondered if someone had mistaken him for a piece of chicken and run him through the batter machine.
Oates had a name for the processing room -- "the hole." It worried him that the only exits in the long, narrow room were at the south end -- the end farthest from the workers. In an emergency, they would have to get past a rectangular deep-fat fryer that stretched 26 feet and dominated the room. He used to tell himself that Imperial should install doors at the north end, but he never complained to management.
"Talking out there is like asking for a bullet in your head, " he said.
If he talked too much, Oates figured, management would find some way to get rid of him. He'd seen it happen to others.
If there ever were a fire, he thought, the workers in the processing room would never make it out. "If you worked in that hole, you just better hope your family has a casket for you, " he said.
'Don't want to be here'
About the same time Oates walked into the plant on the morning of the fire, Letha Terry got out of bed. She took a bath, brushed her teeth, got dressed and drove to work. As usual, she skipped breakfast. She arrived at Imperial about 6 a.m. and parked her car in the rutty, unpaved lot next to the pit that held Imperial's greasy wastewater.
Terry went into the plant and headed back toward her locker. Passing through the canteen, she saw Josephine Barrington, 63, who had been working at Imperial since it opened 11 years earlier, and who also had worked in the plant when it made Mello-Buttercup ice cream.
Every morning when Terry arrived, Miss Josephine, as her friends at work called her, would be sitting at the same table in the break room, eating a biscuit for breakfast. Today, Miss Josephine was sitting with her son Fred, 37, who also worked at the plant.
Terry liked Fred Barrington. He was a friendly guy, always joking around. He would stick pieces of tape on her when she wasn't looking and would play other little pranks like that. She enjoyed his games; they broke up the monotony.
Terry said good morning, then asked Miss Josephine how her Labor Day weekend had been.
"Fine, " Miss Josephine replied. "But I don't want to be in this place."
Terry headed off to the trim room, where she oversaw work on the marinade line. The line workers took seasoned chicken breasts from big metal tubs and placed them on a conveyor, which carried them through a nearby freezer, then back to the trim room. The women then took the breasts from the belt, weighed them, bagged them and packed them into cardboard boxes.
They had to move fast. They filled each box with 53 pieces of chicken. Terry could fill a box in a minute; it took the slower women two or three minutes to fill one. Even the slowest workers would be picking up a piece of chicken every three seconds or so.
Although they usually ran breasts that had been seasoned in two big drums that looked like cement mixers, this day the women would be running tenders -- prime strips of chicken that other trim-room workers would pull from the center of the breasts.
About 7 a.m., the workers began filing in, some of them uttering a familiar complaint: "Oh Lord, I don't want to be here."
While many of them hated their jobs, some said they didn't mind Imperial so much. They earned a steady paycheck, and they got along with their work mates. But even those who hated the place stayed on, believing that they couldn't find anything better.
Family on the line
About 6:50 a.m., while Terry was setting up the marinade line, Margaret Banks called her sister, Flora Lee Banks, from a pay phone in the plant's break room. Both sisters had worked at Imperial for four months -- Margaret worked the first shift in the packing room, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and Flora Lee worked second shift in the processing room, starting about 4 p.m. and heading home near midnight.
Some people mistook Flora Lee, 27, and Margaret, 24, for twins. Just over 5 feet tall, with a sparkle in their eyes, the sisters went the same places and did the same things. They even had identical living room furniture.
They talked on the phone so often that Flora Lee was convinced she could distinguish the sound of Margaret's ring from those of other callers. Whenever Flora Lee was confused or in a jam, she could count on Margaret for good advice. They would talk about everything.
This morning, Margaret was calling to ask Flora Lee a favor: Could she call Southern Bell and ask them to disconnect the telephone in her old apartment?
Margaret had purchased a new mobile home two weeks earlier. She was all set to move in with her children, 2-year-old Martika, a playful girl who smiles a lot, and 6-year-old Michael, a generous boy who is quick to share candy.
They would move as soon as the septic tank was installed. Margaret had already decorated the living room.
Flora Lee and Margaret were typical of many Imperial workers. Both single mothers, they had grown up poor. Their father, James Banks, was a county sanitation worker; their mother, Flora Ann, worked the overnight shift in a textile plant.
Margaret had split up with Michael's dad several years ago. Martika's father left town before she was even born. He was stabbed to death last year in Winston-Salem.
A born-again Christian, Margaret sought solace from her church, where she sang in the choir, served as an usher and taught Sunday school. Every evening at 6, Margaret would lead her own children through a religious hour, reading them Bible verses and teaching them to pray.
When Flora Lee Banks came home each night from her job at Imperial, she was so tired she'd often fall asleep on the living room couch. "I didn't even make it to bed sometimes, " she said.
Flora Lee worked just a few feet from the 26-foot-long fryer in the processing room. As pieces of freshly battered chicken came by on the conveyor, she separated them and placed them back on the belt before they disappeared into the sizzling hot oil.
The machine, which workers say broke down routinely because of problems with its gears and hydraulic lines, operated at 375 degrees. At the end of her shift, Flora Lee would leave drenched with sweat.
"Sometimes it was like somebody just poured water all over me, " she said. "My neck be hurtin'. My back be hurtin'. My arm be hurtin'."
The ache in her arm was especially uncomfortable -- a dull, numbing pain. It seemed to come from moving her arm back and forth so quickly to keep pace with the chicken as it zipped along on the conveyor belt. The same motion, back and forth, back and forth, over and over again.
After a while, she couldn't even raise her hand to her face. If she lifted her arm any higher than parallel to the floor, straight in front of her body, the pain became too intense.
Cold work, numb hands
One room over from processing, behind a wall covered with yellow tiles, Margaret Banks and other workers in the packing room picked pieces of frozen chicken off the conveyor, hustling to keep pace so the chicken wouldn't pile up and fall off the belt. These were pieces that had just been battered, breaded and precooked, then sent through a blast freezer connected to both the processing and packing rooms.
The air from the blast freezer, which operated at subzero temperatures, made the packing room icy cold. Some of the women wore extra shirts and sweaters to stay warm; others wore winter coats on the line.
The chicken came down the slide frozen solid; the women would break the pieces apart, put them in plastic bags, weigh them, pack them into cardboard boxes, label the boxes and stack them on wooden pallets. Then the men from shipping would come and cart the boxes away.
As the chicken came down the chute to the packing room, it would stack up on the slide, covering up every inch of it. Ice would build up on the slide and on the wall where the slide entered the room from the freezer.
"They sent it through too fast, " said Doris Blue, a former packing room employee. "After your hands had been on that cold product for so long, they would get numb. It was hard to tell if you got cut. You wouldn't know it sometimes until your hands thawed out."
The women in the packing room wore plastic gloves with liners underneath them, but the gloves didn't provide much protection from the ice. And it didn't take long for the gloves to get torn up; a worker might go through two or three pairs a night. Imperial gave employees one pair when they started, but after that they had to pay 50 cents for each new set. For many of the women in the packing room, that was too much to spare.
'A raggedy life'
Most days, Gail Pouncy and her sister, Elizabeth Ann Bellamy, shared a car for the half-hour drive from their homes in Bennettsville, S.C., to the Imperial plant. On the day of the fire, however, they drove separately.
Pouncy and Bellamy both were single mothers with two daughters. They had grown up poor.
When Pouncy was 19, just after she gave birth to her second child, her husband skipped town. She never heard from him again, never got any child support. Recently, she found out that he was serving a prison sentence for stabbing a woman he eventually married.
"I had a raggedy life, " Pouncy said. "That's why I wound up in that chicken plant. I had to take anything off anybody. I had to work."
Bellamy, meanwhile, left Bennettsville for New York City right after she graduated from high school. She lived with an aunt and her grandmother, and went to the Brooklyn College of Nursing. Eventually she fell in love with a carpenter named Larry Bellamy, who took good care of Liz and her two daughters, Felicia and Shemean, until he wound up in prison on drug charges about a year ago.
At the time her husband went to prison, Bellamy had been in New York for 20 years, and the escalating violence was taking a toll on her. Just across the street from her apartment was a public park, a hangout for a tough crowd. She and her daughters routinely heard gunshots. It seemed that someone in the neighborhood was getting killed just about every day.
Bellamy decided to pack up her family's belongings, head back to South Carolina and start over. She hoped to find a good job, save some money and buy a nice big house. She didn't realize she'd end up working in a chicken plant, earning $5 an hour.
Pouncy and Bellamy worked in the marinade and cutting room, inserting chicken breasts into machines that sliced off a little chunk of meat from each one. The chunks were used for chicken nuggets, while the breasts were marinated and frozen in the marinade room or breaded and precooked in the processing room.
Gail Pouncy and Liz Bellamy weren't the only members of the Pouncy clan who worked in the cutting room: Bellamy's daughter, Felicia Odom; their niece, Zelda Roberts; and three cousins worked there, too.
The chicken came packed in ice, which would melt and cover the floor with so much water that many of the workers walked around with plastic bags covering their feet. They didn't want to ruin their shoes.
Flies buzzed around the room. They buzzed all around the plant. "We used to be fly killers, " Pouncy said. "We used to take turns, go around killing flies."
Chicken fell on the floor all the time. So Pouncy walked around spearing the fallen pieces with a stick and putting them back on the marinade line. She said that's what management would tell them to do -- even though the meat had been on the floor.
"Once it gets through that marinade machine with all that seasoning and sauce, it's going to taste good, " she recalled managers saying.
Sharing troubles, songs
To Pouncy, the Imperial management seemed mean and stingy. Shortly before the fire, the company announced that employees would have to start washing their own work aprons. Imperial couldn't afford to clean them anymore.
For the employees, most of whom didn't have their own washing machines, the new policy meant extra trips to the laundromat and extra weekly expenses. To Pouncy, that seemed unfair.
"They were people who didn't have money in their pocket, " she said. "They had to borrow quarters and nickels and dimes."
Of all the Imperial managers, Pouncy said, the one she liked the least was Brad Roe, the operations manager and son of the company's owner. When Roe gave Pouncy her allotment of three aprons, she recalled, he said in a loud, gruff voice: "You better not get a damn spot on them or I'll fire you on the spot."
If life in the plant was sometimes grim, Pouncy said, the employees had ways of making it easier. The line workers were country people, open and friendly. They kept no secrets. They shared problems; they comforted each other. They were like a family.
Sometimes, to break up the monotony of life on the line, the younger women would sneak over to a room near the garbage bin for a few minutes and flirt with the male employees.
And sometimes, they lightened the atmosphere with music.
"Come on, let's sing, " Bellamy would say whenever they were feeling sad.
"I ain't in the mood to sing, " Pouncy would say.
Then Liz Bellamy would convince her sister to sing one of her favorites, "I Love Jesus." Bellamy loved to hear Pouncy sing that song, and she'd try to join in. But Bellamy couldn't sing a lick.
Worst kind of shame
On the day of the fire, Thomas Oates was overseeing operation of the two grading machines in the trim room. The machines sorted the chicken by weight into one of eight baskets attached to a conveyor belt. To operate properly, the machine required that a steady flow of fine mist be sprayed upon it. Whenever he worked the grader, Oates went home soaking wet.
Sometimes, baskets on the grading machines overflowed or tilted and spilled chicken on the floor.
One day, Oates said, he picked up a piece of chicken from the plant floor and started to carry it to the garbage bin in the "inedible room, " a place where several Imperial workers say they saw maggots crawling up the walls.
An inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture had told Oates to toss out any chicken he found lying on the floor. But Oates said that when Brad Roe saw him heading for the garbage bin, he exploded.
"Where are you going with that damn chicken?" Oates recalled him saying. "I want the [expletive] chicken picked up and put in the box."
Oates explained that he was simply following the USDA man's instructions.
"I ain't the USDA man, " Roe replied, according to Oates' recollection. "I own this place."
Another time, Oates said, he complained to Roe that some chicken in the cooler was too rotten to process. It was always easy to tell when the chicken was rotten, he said: "The smell alone is enough to gag a maggot or send a buzzard running for a gas mask."
When he called the chicken to Roe's attention, Oates recalled, Roe told him, "As long as it's not green, go ahead and run it."
But what bothered the workers most of all, Oates said, was the company's "occurrence" policy, under which employees would be punished if they went to the bathroom too often.
Employees were permitted to use the bathroom four times daily, but they had to ask permission before going. If they stayed longer than their allotted five minutes, or if they went one time too many, they were penalized half an occurrence. Anyone who accumulated five occurrences would be fired.
To Oates, the policy seemed better suited to a classroom of kindergartners than to a factory work force. It seemed an indignity for adults to submit to such treatment, so Oates simply flouted the rule, going to the bathroom when he pleased.
Another Imperial employee, afraid of accumulating too many occurrences, once tried desperately to wait for a break rather than request an extra trip to the bathroom.
She wet her pants.
'Where's my baby?'
About 8:15 the morning of Sept. 3, two maintenance men were in the processing room working on the fryer, which was malfunctioning again. As they worked on the machine, a hydraulic line sprang from its fitting and began spraying fluid onto the 375-degree, natural-gas-powered fryer. The fluid ignited in a burst of fire.
Gail Pouncy was standing in the trim room at the time, talking to her sister Liz Bellamy as they cut pieces of chicken with stainless steel knives. Their niece, Zelda Roberts, was there, and so was Bellamy's daughter, Felicia Odom.
Pouncy was telling her sister that she had some job applications in the car; they would fill them out and leave Imperial soon. Bellamy smiled at the thought.
Then Pouncy heard the screaming.
She looked up and saw a room full of fire. Grabbing Bellamy by the arm, she raced toward the door to a shed that enclosed the garbage bin.
"Where's my daughter?" Bellamy shrieked. "Where's my baby?"
"She's coming, " Pouncy said.
Odom and Roberts ran behind them, Roberts still carrying the knife she had been working with moments before.
As soon as they entered the shed, Bellamy reached for the door. "Oh Lord, it's locked!" she cried as the terror swept over them.
Within moments, about 40 hysterical employees had crammed into the shed, climbing over one another in their desperate attempt to flee. As smoke filled their eyes and lungs, they pounded on the walls. "Lord help me!" they screamed. "I don't want to die! Let us out!"
Pouncy made her way toward the front of the shed, where she and Bernard Campbell tore a hole in one corner of the tin wall. Campbell, young and agile, slipped through the tiny opening to safety. Pouncy tried to hoist herself through, but she was too heavy to make it.
Looking through the opening, Pouncy saw Danny Pate, an Imperial supervisor, standing outside. He told her to make her way over to the doorway; they had a key. It would be open in a moment.
As she turned for the door, Pouncy fell to the ground. She felt hot ashes on the back of her head. She tried to pull herself up, but she felt so weak. Struggling toward the door, she heard a woman shout, "Let's try to make it to the freezer!"
Prayers and panic
Pouncy warned them not to go -- the door would be open in a minute. But it was too late. The women had gone.
Pouncy heard her niece's voice. "Don't go, Zelda!" she screamed at Roberts. "They got the key! Zelda, Zelda, please don't leave me!" Pouncy then made her way to the doorway and passed out beside it.
Roberts ran over to the nearby loading dock, but a delivery truck was blocking the way out. She entered the back of the tractor-trailer, where frantic workers were banging on the walls, hoping to get the attention of someone outside.
Truck driver Rickie Godfrey, who had been napping in the cab, awoke to the sound of their screams. He pulled the truck forward from the dock and watched as smoke billowed from behind.
Zelda Roberts stepped from the rear of the truck up onto the loading dock, then jumped to the ground and safety.
In the plant, Liz Bellamy and Felicia Odom sat inside the cooler, praying they would get out alive. Along with about a dozen others, they had entered the cooler seeking refuge from the smoke and chaos.
Bellamy started to panic. "Oh, Father! Oh, God! I ain't ready to die!" she screamed.
"Mom, calm down, calm down, " Odom said. "It will be all right."
Bellamy lay with her legs stretched out in front of her, resting her head in the lap of Monica McDougald, 21, a marinade room employee who was sitting with her back against the rear wall, praying that she would see her 2-month-old son, Dashawn, before she died.
Felicia Odom watched her mother take her last breath. Then she passed out herself.
Out on Bridges Street, Thomas Oates watched as rescue workers carried body after body from the plant. Corpses lay scattered on the grass across from the garbage bin. Unconscious workers lay on the ground frothing at the mouth, their faces covered with soot, smoke emanating from their nostrils.
Running faster than he ever imagined possible in his clunky rubber boots, Oates had raced out the front door within seconds of seeing the smoke and hearing the screams. He was one of the lucky few to make it out uninjured.
He watched in horror as someone with a tractor pulled the garbage bin away from the plant. Three bodies tumbled from the opening where the bin had stood. One of them was Bertha Jarrell. Oates had been working beside her just three minutes earlier.
Letha Terry staggered out through the shed door as soon as someone opened it from the outside. Coughing and gagging, she ran to the parking lot across Bridges Street, where she saw her friend Elaine Griffin, a packing room employee.
"Lord, Lord, this can't be true!" Terry hollered. "No, no!"
She pointed at all the people lying on the ground. "There's Lillian. She's dead, " Terry said. "There's Mary Alice. She's dead."
Terry didn't know it yet, but her friend Fred Barrington and his mother, Miss Josephine, were dead, too.
Griffin tried to comfort her. "It's going to be all right, " she said.
"No, it won't, " Terry replied.
Cries in the night
Margaret Banks didn't make it out of the building alive.
In Laurinburg, about 20 minutes from the plant, her mother, Flora Ann Banks, sat next to the radio, listening to reports about the fire, hoping for news of her daughter. With each new report, the list of the dead grew.
The afternoon seemed like it would never end. But finally, about 4 p.m., her husband, James, and Margaret's sister, Flora Lee, came back from the plant, where they had gone to look for Margaret -- or Lisa, as the family called her.
"Where's Lisa?" Mrs. Banks asked, rushing to meet them in the driveway. "Where's Lisa, y'all?"
When she saw her husband's face, Mrs. Banks knew her daughter was dead.
Felicia Odom and Gail Pouncy were among those carried from the plant that day. They would spend weeks struggling to recover from the horror, visiting doctors, talking to psychologists, taking pills and sucking on inhalers to aid their damaged lungs.
One night about seven weeks after the fire, Liz Bellamy's orphaned 9-year-old daughter, Shemean, spent the night at her aunt's house. Gail Pouncy was having trouble sleeping. As she paced back and forth in the hallway, thinking about her sister, she heard Shemean calling out in her sleep.
"Mama, " Shemean cried. "Mama."
THE PAIN WON'T STOP
Reporter: BEN STOCKING Staff writer
LANCASTER, S.C. -- As a physical therapist helped Mildred Moates lie down on a bed in the Rebound brain trauma center, a horrible noise sprang from deep within her, an awful combination of moan and scream.
A look of terror crossed her face. It was a faraway look that has become all too familiar to her husband, Olin Moates, since Mildred emerged from the coma into which she fell after suffering severe brain damage Sept. 3 in the Imperial Food Products fire in Hamlet.
Whenever he sees that look, Olin is convinced his wife has drifted back into Imperial again and is reliving the moments of death and destruction she witnessed before passing out on the plant floor.
Mildred kept screaming as the physical therapist tried to calm her down. "Ahhhhh! Ahhhhh!"
"What's wrong, Mildred? What's wrong?" the therapist asked.
The screaming grew louder. "Ahhhhh! Ahhhhh!"
"Is it your legs? Is it your arms?" Olin asked.
His wife closed her eyes for several minutes, then started screaming again.
"I ain't going to leave you, " Olin said. "I'm not going to leave you, darling."
The incident lasted at least 10 minutes. Finally, Mildred muttered three nearly inaudible words: "Harvey got killed."
Harvey is her 27-year-old son, and he hadn't been to see her in the hospital for a few days. Mildred seemed to think Harvey had died in the fire. Two weeks earlier, she thought Olin and another son, Wesley, had been trapped inside the plant. "Get Wesley and Olin out, " she said then.
Olin's doctor has told him not to drive long distances alone; he had triple-bypass surgery earlier this year and then suffered a serious heart attack one day after the fire, while he was visiting Mildred at the hospital in Chapel Hill. But Olin was determined to make the one-hour trip back to Rockingham right away. He had to get Harvey so Mildred would know her son was still alive.
"I might die 10 minutes from now, " Olin said as he climbed into his car, "but I'll die happy. I'll die trying to help her."
Mildred and Olin met 33 years ago when he was visiting his uncle, John Black, in Rockingham, five miles from Hamlet. Mildred happened to stop by Black's house that day, too. It was love at first sight. Olin had come up from South Carolina to visit for the weekend, but he never went back.
The Moateses both grew up poor. His parents spent their lives collecting eggs on South Carolina chicken farms; her father worked in textile mills all his life. At the time of the fire, Olin, who dropped out of school in the seventh grade, was working as a security guard at Laurel Hill Paper Co. in Cordova, near Rockingham. Mildred, who quit school in the ninth grade, was working in the trim room at Imperial, where she had been employed for six years.
Mildred worked the first shift; Olin worked the second. They would see each other briefly in the afternoons, then for two days over the weekend -- unless she had to work Saturday, as she often did.
Every evening at 5:15, Mildred would take a hot, home-cooked meal to Olin, who would eat it in the guardhouse while he worked. On cold winter mornings, Olin would crawl out of bed at 5 and warm up the car for Mildred. He didn't want her to catch a cold.
Once a source of deep joy, their life together has been transformed by the fire into an unspeakable nightmare. Olin spends his days at Rebound Inc. Head Injury Recovery Services, located on the seventh floor of Elliot White Springs Memorial Hospital in Lancaster.
Mildred is struggling to relearn things she learned to do as a child: how to walk, how to talk, how to feed herself, how to use a toilet. But she's making progress. She can whisper yes and no. She can respond to certain commands.
Olin is hoping for a 100 percent recovery, but the doctors won't give him a percentage. "Right now, " he said, "it's wait and see."
Each day at 12:30 p.m., Olin helps Mildred eat her lunch. The menu for that day included a hamburger, french fries, boiled potatoes, green beans, milk and iced tea.
Olin held the hamburger to her mouth. She took a bite, then chewed very slowly. He lifted a spoonful of potatoes to her mouth: "Open up, " he said. "Open up."
Then he put the spoon in Mildred's hand and lifted her elbow, coaxing her to feed herself. "Good, that's good, " he said as she slipped the spoon into her mouth with a little help from him.
He kissed her on the cheek.
When she entered the hospital at Chapel Hill, doctors said Mildred's chances of survival were between 2 percent and 5 percent. She remained in a coma for five weeks. When she woke up, two weeks after arriving at Rebound, she didn't recognize her own family. "She had that wild look in her eyes, " Olin said.
It wasn't until the next day that she began to identify family members.
"Is this your husband?" a nurse asked her. Mildred couldn't speak, but she nodded her head in affirmation.
She works each day with a speech therapist, who spends a half-hour with her after lunch. She has learned to say yes and no in response to simple questions, but she rarely initiates speech on her own. If the therapist sings short phrases to her, Mildred can sing along behind her.
"How are you?" the therapist said in a singsong voice.
"How are you?" Mildred sang.
They ran through several more phrases: I am fine. Bacon and eggs. Good morning.
Then the therapist tried a different phrase: "Olin, I love you."
"Olin, I love you, " Mildred sang.
"Oh, " the therapist said, a smile crossing her face. "You said that one best of all."
DOBBINS HEIGHTS, HAMLET WORLDS APART
Reporter: FRAN ARRINGTON Staff writer
DOBBINS HEIGHTS -- After the fire call went out from the Imperial plant, Johnny Reddick and the other Dobbins Heights volunteer firefighters crowded around the scanner and listened as Hamlet's fire chief called for backup.
Reddick was frantic. His wife, Cleo, was at work at the plant. He wondered if she'd gotten out alive.
Many people in Dobbins Heights, located on Hamlet's northern shoulder, knew people at Imperial. Of the 25 people who died and 56 who were injured in the fire, many were friends and family. Barbara Washington, who lived with her mother in Dobbins Heights, was on the job at the plant when the fire broke out. So was Michael Morrison, who had moved back recently to live with his sister.
Ernest Cannon, Dobbins Heights fire administrator, called Hamlet and offered help. He was told to stand by.
But Dobbins Heights never got a call back. Hamlet got assistance from three other departments -- Rockingham, East Rockingham and Cordova, all located farther from Imperial than Dobbins Heights.
"They were calling everything but us, " said Charles Smith, the only white member of the predominantly black fire department. "We could have been there within five minutes."
After the fire, Hamlet Fire Chief David Fuller said he didn't call the Dobbins Heights department -- located about two miles from Imperial -- because the firefighters there are inexperienced. They don't accept that.
"It was a racial thing, " Cannon said. "We are just as qualified as his volunteers. I know they're prejudiced. Hamlet has always looked at Dobbins Heights that way."
For many in Dobbins Heights, the fire department incident was salt rubbed into an old wound. In the town of 1,144 -- where nearly 80 percent of the residents are black -- people have always felt slighted by Hamlet, where blacks make up 34 percent of 6,196 residents.
Dobbins Heights was originally named North Yard because of its location just north of Hamlet and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. The people who settled there were mostly blacks who had come to Hamlet as railroad workers. While the towns are geographically close, their realities have always been far apart.
While Hamlet built fine homes and threw lavish parties to entertain celebrities passing through town on the railroad, North Yard's residents lived in shabbily built wooden houses and worked hard just to put food on the table and to educate their children.
Since no high schools in the area accepted blacks, their education generally ended at the elementary level. In 1908, the people of North Yard built the Pee Dee Institute and opened its doors to black students from Hamlet and around the area.
Residents say they've always had to rely on their own initiative to get things done. Although they paid taxes, at different times, to Hamlet and Richmond County, they felt routinely neglected. Water and sewer lines were so overburdened that no two households could run a shower at the same time; roads went unpaved; streets were without proper lighting; and essential materials were absent from classrooms.
The community set up its own fire department in 1974, mainly because North Yard residents didn't trust Hamlet firefighters to put out fires in their neighborhoods. They claim the Hamlet Fire Department responded sluggishly and wouldn't come at all if a property owner didn't have proof of insurance or $300 in cash.
"You would be on the phone telling them your house was burning and they would be calling insurance companies to make sure you could pay, " Cannon said. "They took their own sweet time because they know blacks live up here. By the time they got here, you were burned to the ground."
Two years after its fire department was founded, the community -- which had established a charter and renamed itself Dobbins Heights after a major landowner -- sought annexation by Hamlet, hoping to tap into city services. But Hamlet officials turned them down, saying they couldn't afford to annex the economically depressed area.
Dobbins Heights residents said it was the same old song but with a different tune. They said that race was at the core of the decision -- that Hamlet officials didn't want to annex what could become a formidable black voting bloc.
After its rejection by Hamlet, Dobbins Heights went on the offensive. With the aid of federal grants, the community paved roads, put up new street lights, rehabilitated homes and cleared off vacant lots. As town leaders tell it, they got no help from Hamlet or Richmond County.
"No other places worked against us like our surrounding areas, " said Halbert A. Jackson, Dobbins Heights' first mayor. "We couldn't even get an attorney to represent us. We had nobody to tell us what to do."
In 1983, the leaders in Dobbins Heights began a push for incorporation. But the bill that state Rep. Hugh A. Lee of Rockingham agreed to introduce in the General Assembly wasn't what residents had expected. It effectively hemmed in the community by prohibiting future annexations. It also required that a referendum be held in which 50 percent of registered voters -- not actual voters -- would have to approve incorporation.
"That was done to block us, " Jackson said. "They knew it would be hard to get half of the registered folks. But we did."
On May 8, 1984, the referendum was held and incorporation was narrowly approved -- but not without controversy.
Richmond County election officials said the 272 votes cast in favor of incorporation were one shy of a majority of the 544 registered voters. The next day, a Dobbins Heights resident determined that two dead people were listed as registered voters. When he presented their death certificates to the elections board, it declared the incorporation drive a success.
Dobbins Heights -- once described as one of North Carolina's worst slums -- has come a long way. But it's still a poor town with no major industries and only four small businesses: a community store, a grocery store, a coffee shop and a day care center.
Like Hamlet, children and elderly people make up nearly 45 percent of Dobbins Heights' population. In both towns, single women head about a fourth of the households. And both Hamlet and Dobbins Heights provide laborers for Richmond County's many textile and apparel mills.
It is those similarities -- despite the entrenched separation of the two towns -- that connected Dobbins Heights to Hamlet on the day the fire erupted at Imperial.
Cleo Reddick and Barbara Washington survived the fire. Michael Morrison wasn't as lucky. When the casualties were counted, he was among the dead.
"They were all my sisters and brothers, " said Channie McManus, who was Dobbins Heights' mayor at the time of the fire. "With the sharing of loss with these families, we all realize that this could have been us."
The fire, she said, has forced people in both towns to see more clearly how their lives are intertwined.
"Always, in disaster, you find blacks and whites coming together, " McManus said.
At a funeral for one of the fire victims, she and a white woman she didn't know hugged each other and cried together.
"Her tears ran down my shoulder and mine down hers, " McManus said. "Had we met on the street, we probably would have just spoken, maybe not even that. Out of all of this, it should make us all stronger."
DREAMS OF BETTER DAYS
Reporter: JANE RUFFIN Staff writer
HAMLET -- The sirens interrupted Ruth Land's circle meeting at the First Presbyterian Church.
She walked toward Hamlet Hospital as ambulances tore by with the injured. A police blockade kept her too far away to recognize anyone. Not that she could have anyway.
"I didn't know anybody who worked there, " she said. "Just people you didn't know worked down there."
She said that weeks after the fire at Imperial Food Products, while she was deep into a conversation about Hamlet and its history. She was not being callous -- only saying what lots of others know is true: Many of those who worked and died at Imperial were of a different stratum, an underclass just scraping by.
Imperial had been down there, tucked away on Bridges Street by the railroad tracks, for 11 years. Land, 73, -- daughter of a railroad engineer, wife of a prosperous truck and tractor dealer -- had grown up in Hamlet but was barely aware of Imperial. Once, she went to the bank on the plant's payday and found a line of women in hairnets. Only recently had she learned that Imperial processed chicken.
After the fire, when Hamlet was in the news all over the country, some of Land's friends were annoyed by the way the town looked in print.
"I just heard people say, 'It looks like we're poverty-stricken, '" she said. But then again, she acknowledged with some regret, maybe those descriptions were not entirely wrong.
Hamlet is like other small towns that have lost their centers. Once a railroad hub, it has suffered from the decline of passenger trains while other towns have lost manufacturing jobs to automation or cheaper labor overseas. People with limited skills and little education have been left with whatever jobs they can find -- and for some, places like Imperial are the best they can do.
"It's a phenomenon not just in North Carolina but throughout the South, " said Jesse L. White Jr. of Chapel Hill, a public policy consultant and a past executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board. "There are Hamlets all over the South."
'I can't get out'
There was a time -- when the plant made ice cream -- that the workers on Bridges Street weren't strangers to people like Ruth Land. Buttercup Ice Cream Co. was a fixture in Hamlet, a place where high school boys could count on summer jobs and would hurl "snowballs" at each other in the freezer.
"It's FAMOUS because it's GOOD, " Buttercup boasted. It was easy to talk the sales manager into a free sample, or even a free gallon. Ask anyone over 50 in Hamlet and watch him grin.
At Imperial, workers "stole everything you can imagine, " including scales used for weighing chicken, said Loretta Hall, a supervisor in the packing room. "You didn't leave anything in that plant that was of any value." Some think the bosses at Imperial padlocked a door to keep people from stealing chicken.
At Buttercup, they gave the ice cream away.
Those were the days of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad -- in the first half of the century -- when nearly everyone in town was there because of the trains. Coming into Hamlet from five directions, the railroad gave the town its reason for being and put a jingle in its pocket.
Ruth Land's father-in-law, W.R. Land, owned a department store and a hotel, surrounded by the tracks, where you could have supper for 75 cents on Sunday nights. Twice a year, his twin daughters, Augusta and Virginia, would throw a party and invite 100 people.
"In those days, people visited neighbors. They don't do it now, " said Augusta Land, who is 88 and blunt. For 43 years, she taught the 4th and 5th grades in Hamlet. "We didn't have tragedies like we do now, " she said.
Like the Lands, Mattie Fairley grew up in the town. But she was of a different generation, a different race and a different Hamlet. She worked at Imperial.
On the morning of Sept. 3, Fairley was in one of the ambulances speeding to Hamlet Hospital. She survived the fire by desperately wedging her head and shoulders through a crack between a wall and a trash bin.
Her mother-in-law, Peggy Fairley Anderson, had worked at Imperial from the day it opened. She died in the fire.
Fairley, 40, walked to work from her rented duplex about a half-mile from the plant. Once, she cleaned rooms in a nursing home, bringing home $200 every two weeks. She also cropped tobacco, picked peaches and cotton, and worked in housekeeping at a hospital in Pinehurst. The most she ever made was the $5.50 an hour she got at Imperial.
She never graduated from high school. "I got tired, I guess, " she said.
In 1980, the year Imperial came to town, almost half the people over 25 in Hamlet didn't have high school diplomas. Nearly one-fourth of the town's residents lived in poverty.
Richmond County's jobless rate usually exceeds the state's. In October, 7.7 percent of the county's labor force was out of work, more than 2.5 points above the state rate.
Fairley's husband, Maurice, a construction worker, is unemployed.
"We always talk about going somewhere, but we never do, " he said.
"I can't get out of Hamlet, " Mattie Fairley said.
36 trains a day
For 63 years, Elmer Lee "Tug" Jones has worked at the Seaboard Filling Station, not far from the mansard-roofed depot at the end of Main Street. Jones, 83, jaws with the occasional visitor amid a clutter of cigar boxes and displays of Wild Turkey bottles and old license plates.
Today the depot is closed more often than it is open, a whistle-stop for the Amtrak Silver Star, which pulls in twice a day. But Hamlet once was the thriving headquarters of a Seaboard division and the home of many train crew members. Jones remembers a time, in the 1930s, when 36 trains arrived each day.
"It was a real hamlet then. It was busy, " he said. "If we had the old Seaboard railroad, we'd have something."
Rail passengers knew where they were when they got to Hamlet. In the '30s, on a knoll beside the tracks, Ruth Land's mother planted spirea bushes that spell out H-A-M-L-E-T to this day.
"There's a lot of civic pride in a small town, " Land said.
Hamlet's founder was an Englishman who had a woolen mill in nearby Rockingham before it was destroyed in the Civil War by Sherman's troops, along with Richmond County's turpentine industry and courthouse. John Shortridge began again in 1872 in the area known as Sandhills, at the time consisting mainly of sand and longleaf pine -- and a railroad line to Wilmington.
"This is not a hamlet yet, " he said when he named the town in 1873. "But I believe it will be one soon and perhaps in years to come a city."
By 1894, Hamlet had become a rail center, and the railroad remained the town's focal point for the next half century. The Seaboard Hotel, Hamlet's first, was built in 1900 chiefly as a dining room for train travelers, who were disgorged for 20-minute meal stops.
In a day of segregation, the arrival there of black social reformer Booker T. Washington caused a commotion. "Things worked out all right, when sheets were strung down the center of the large dining room, " the local newspaper reported, "and Mr. Washington and his entourage used one half of the room while other guests used the other."
A famous crooner came through -- "Oh, it was the biggest thrill to see Rudy Vallee, " Ruth Land said. So did the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, accompanied by their little brown pugs.
Between the passenger trains and a freight yard north of town, Hamlet's railroad employment reached peaks in the 1920s, and again during World War II and in the '50s. Members of the railroad brotherhoods were well paid for the time. "Blue-collar workers on white-collar salaries, " some say of them now.
"Generally speaking, they were upper-middle-class people, " said Dr. R.J. Blackley of Raleigh, whose father, an engineer, took home $500 to $600 a month in the 1920s. "They didn't make a whole lot of money, but they were comfortable."
There were other benefits: good pensions and passes that let families of railroad workers ride free.
But railroad work was not cushy. The rails often kept firemen, brakemen, engineers and conductors away from home.
"Lordy, the wife raised the children, " said Julius A. Crowell, a retired conductor who runs the National Railroad Museum in the Hamlet depot's old newsstand. Some workdays lasted 15 hours and 59 minutes; after 16 hours, the railroad had to provide an eight-hour break between stints.
Tom Wicker, the New York Times columnist, was born in Hamlet in 1926, the son of a freight conductor. From his house on Hamlet Avenue, he heard the locomotives whistling in the night.
"My recollection is practically everybody worked for the railroad, " he said. "Every time you would go anywhere, you generally would have to wait for the train to pass."
Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane also was born in Hamlet during the railroad boom, in the same year as Wicker. Coltrane's birthplace, a flat-roofed structure down the street from Wicker's house, now holds D's Alterations and Renee's Rental of Party Supplies, the NAACP office and Mary's House of Beauty.
Building a paradise
The railroad beckoned Buttercup's founder, Louis A. Corning, to Hamlet in 1920. Like Emmett J. Roe, who would start Imperial Food Products decades later, Corning was an ambitious New Yorker who brought his family into the business. But Corning, unlike Roe, made Hamlet his home.
Corning had been a pharmacist in Elmira, N.Y., where ice cream was his more profitable sideline. In 1919, he sold L.A. Corning Quality Ice Cream Co. to a larger company in a deal that prohibited him from making ice cream again within 500 miles of Elmira.
He was in his 40s, too young to retire. And his wife, Minnie Elvira Corning, wanted "to get him the heck out of the house, " said his grandson, Roland S. Corning, a South Carolina legislator. "He picked up a map of the South and noticed all the railroad connections in Hamlet."
Buttercup expanded to employ 150 at the plant Corning built on Bridges Street and at branches in Sanford, Wilmington, Asheboro, Lumberton, Fayetteville, Conway, S.C., and Sumter, S.C.
"It was one of the few industries other than the railroad that had employment there in Hamlet, " said another grandson, Louis A. Corning III of New Bern, a retired telephone company executive.
And workers found Buttercup a good place to be. "I know he treated them well enough that a number of them started with him in the '20s and '30s and stayed right on through, " the grandson said, "and he was able to secure good workers."
While his wife kept a house in town, Corning bought land north of Hamlet and developed what his grandsons describe as Xanadu. At Lotus Pool Farms, he built log cabins -- a small one for the family and a more elaborate one for guests and parties. Deer and pheasant ran freely, and water spouted from the mouth of a sculptured frog in a pond.
"He had animals all over the place, and you could hike from the farm out to the railroad, and you could play in the woods, " Roland Corning said. "It was a paradise for kids."
The ice cream business grew in competitiveness in the 1960s. To keep up, Buttercup would have had to expand greatly. Instead, the family sold the business in 1968 to Coastal Dairy Products Inc.
Coastal ran the Bridges Street plant, using the name Mello-Buttercup, for nine years before moving the operation to Wilson. The 1977 announcement of its closing was painful for Hamlet.
"People around here had a lot of pride in the Buttercup plant, " said Barbara Thomas, whose husband, Richard, was plant manager. "Buttercup had a real good name. I felt like it was just a real part of Hamlet for so many years."
Echoes of an era
But nothing stung like the passing of passenger trains in the 1940s and '50s, as airplanes and automobiles became supreme. In 1940, Hamlet's population was 5,111. It fell after that until the 1980s, when annexation helped boost the count to 6,196.
"The older I get, the more I realize the railroad is the focal point of the community and the more I comprehend its impact, " said Mayor Abbie G. Covington, whose grandfather started a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Hamlet in 1903.
"As I saw the railroad begin to change, I realized it was going to change the whole structure of the community because every time something impacted on the railroad, it impacted on us."
Hamlet still considers itself a railroad town. Fifteen percent of its labor force is in transportation, mainly at the weedy freight yard of CSX Transportation north of town. An average of 2,820 rail cars arrive daily to be uncoupled and rerouted. Diesel locomotives, boxcars and flatcars get minor repairs at the adjacent shops. CSX employs 600 there, down from 1,500 a decade ago.
Last year, when the National Civic League deemed Hamlet an All-America City, people gave it a nickname with railroad echoes: "The little town that could." The league recognized the town for saving Hamlet Hospital by backing its takeover by a for-profit company, for expanding the meticulously kept town library and for reinvigorating the Seaboard Festival, an annual love feast for the railroad.
Across the street from the train depot, down from a soup kitchen, rumpled men stand outside the 80-year-old Terminal Hotel. Painted on a window is "Dining Room. Best Coffee in Onondaga."
The sign and others like it were left by Hollywood, which made over parts of Hamlet to look like Onondaga, N.Y., in the 1930s for the filming of "Billy Bathgate." The signs remind people of the way Hamlet used to be.
"I think they look good, " said Ernie Covington, whose family owns the Terminal. "Nobody seems to want to tear them down yet."
A flat foundation
While trains waned in Hamlet, textile mills were making things go five miles up the highway in Rockingham, the county seat and commercial center. For those displaced by Hamlet's economic decline, the mills provided alternative employment.
One of the state's first cotton mills started production in Richmond County in 1836. Power from the Pee Dee River, on the county's western edge, helped attract the textile industry. But the most powerful lure was the area's labor supply.
Generations of Richmond County residents have labored in the mills, including one owned by Sheriff Raymond W. Goodman, a cigar-chewing Democratic power who has held the office for 41 years.
More than four of every 10 jobs in the county are in manufacturing. And more than half of those manufacturing jobs are in textile and apparel plants, the rock upon which the county's economy is built.
But like a rock, this foundation does not expand.
"It has just managed to hold its own, " said Glenn Sumpter, editor of the Richmond County Daily Journal. "Plants have opened and closed and reopened, and it's been a stagnant economy. It's not growing. It's running on a flat, level plane."
In 1974, Richmond County seemed about to leave its low-wage textile-and-apparel rut. Rust-belt industries were heading south, and Clark Equipment Co. broke ground for a huge truck and bus transmission plant in Rockingham. James B. Hunt Jr., then lieutenant governor, drove a front-end loader to turn the first slice of clay; Gov. James E. Holshouser Jr. showed up later with a state flag.
Clark came south for the lower tax rates, a non-union work force and the promise of training at Richmond Community College. By the late 1970s, it was the county's largest manufacturing employer with 1,100 on the payroll. Its workers were paid well. Twice, they rejected efforts to unionize them.
Then came the pain.
Foreign competition forced Clark to cut back. In 1986, to Richmond County's regret, it closed the Rockingham plant. That year, Clark's last, the average weekly manufacturing wage in the county was $307.93. In 1987, it dropped to $282.57.
The closing was a blow to people like Stephen B. Snead, an industrial engineer who had left a textile job to work for Clark. Until Clark came along, he had been thinking of moving away. "There was nothing here for me, future-wise, " he said.
Clark's departure left a void in the job market, although a smattering of smaller companies grew up in its wake. Snead went into partnership with Jerry Eteo, a Michigan transplant who was supervisor of manufacturing engineering at Clark. Their precision machining company employs 32 at Pinehills Industrial Park near Hamlet, paying an average of $9.50 an hour.
Job applicants show up almost daily. But when Eteo asks whether they can handle his computer-controlled equipment, they look at him blankly.
"We tell them we are happy to take their application, but we probably won't have a job, " he said.
That's an old story in rural North Carolina. For years, researchers have documented a steady decline in jobs for those with low skills. In Richmond County, even traditional manufacturing employers are demanding a better-trained work force.
Where Clark once employed men on metal-working machinery, women now sit at sewing machines, piles of white cotton at their sides. Fruit of the Loom, whose wage rates didn't match Clark's, bought the plant in 1986.
Fruit of the Loom's 1,600 workers knit, bleach, dye, cut and sew, turning out 30,000 to 50,000 dozen sweat shirts, sweat pants and T-shirts a week. Its ever-droning knitting machines, like the lathes in Jerry Eteo's plant, are operated by people who run computers.
"These ladies and men are very skilled labor, " said plant manager William A. Tucker. "People say they are unskilled labor, but people who say that don't know what these ladies do."
Some still hurt from Clark's departure. Richmond County has been "kind of on a downhill slide" ever since, said Steve Shelton, manager of the Rockingham Stainless Steel plant outside Hamlet.
Or what used to be Rockingham Stainless Steel. Production stopped in July after the company that owns the plant said the valves manufactured there were not profitable enough.
"As a rule around the county, the average blue-collar worker recognizes there is practically no opportunity for him here, " said Shelton, who suspects that Richmond's leaders aren't doing enough to woo industry.
But manufacturing plants no longer are streaming southward. And those that do relocate choose areas with interstate highways and commercial airports. Richmond County has neither.
"We're in the middle of the biggest interstate highway void in North Carolina and South Carolina, " said Johnny S. Sutton, Richmond County industrial director.
After Clark closed, representatives of another major company came to look over the county. Later, on their way to the Charlotte airport, they got lost. They did not return to Richmond County.
Today, much of the county's energy goes into fighting against a low-level radioactive waste landfill that the state is considering locating near Hamlet. Many fear that the landfill would damage the county's economic prospects and endanger its residents.
Ruby Bruce, who lives on the potential landfill site, turns up at every public meeting on the subject, taking notes and giving anyone who will listen a piece of her mind. Lately, the fire at Imperial and government's ignorance of working conditions there have provided her with new ammunition.
"If they can't inspect a chicken plant, how are they going to inspect this?" she asked.
In the moist chill of the Perdue chicken plant in Rockingham, Hester Thomas is a liver trimmer, which means she separates giblets from chickens: an average of 19.8 chickens per minute, 1,187.5 chickens per hour, 9,500 chickens per day.
Thomas, who commutes the 25 miles from Bennettsville, S.C., is one of 850 Perdue "associates" in Rockingham. The company's associates, mostly women, make $6.05 per hour on the day shift and $6.15 at night.
Perdue produces 500,000 "oven-stuffer roasters" a week, slaughtering chickens trucked in from farms under contract to the company. It's a surreal scene on the processing line: Workers in rubber boots, vinyl coats, hats and hairnets stand side by side, deftly slicing, examining, sorting and packing pound after pound of chicken.
Thomas has seen the plant become increasingly automated since she began working there in 1973, fresh out of high school. Rubber-fingered mechanical pickers take off feathers, an eviscerator removes internal organs, machines make thin slices of chicken breasts.
Greater automation eliminates jobs, but increased production and new product lines have kept employment growing from the 400 who worked there in 1985 when Perdue bought the plant from White Poultry. For instance, the company is preparing to process chicken feet for sale in the Far East.
Perdue hires about 10 new workers a week, or roughly one in five applicants. Some former Imperial workers have found jobs at Perdue, which provides employment for the low-skilled -- to a point.
"We don't hire just anybody who comes in the door, " said Wayne T. Burgess, complex manager for Perdue. "We have screening, and we do give physical exams to our prospective associates. We don't hire people to work for a few days or a few weeks at a time. We like to believe we have some pretty high standards."
Standards are rising in workplaces across Richmond County, squeezing out workers with limited skills -- the very ones who would make an ideal labor force for another Imperial. Beeping robots drive machinery at Burlington Industries' fabric plant. At the Owens Illinois plant, machines run by skilled operators make plastic bottle caps.
"Employment is shifting slowly toward high-skill technicians and away from low-skill operatives -- mostly women -- who have traditionally claimed the textile and apparel jobs, " concluded a 1987 report on Richmond County by MDC Inc., a Chapel Hill research firm that specializes in economic development.
"If Richmond is to prosper 10, 20, and 30 years into the future, its work force will have to be far better trained and educated than it is today, " the report said.
Education leaders recognize that, said M. Doug James, the county school superintendent.
At Richmond Senior High School, where Hamlet sends its students, a Tech Prep program builds academics into vocational training, preparing graduates for Richmond Community College. Another program, Occu Prep, guides the curriculum for students who will go to work directly after graduation.
Both programs are too new to have had much impact. But they are promising in a county that traditionally has put more stock in athletic deftness than in academic ability. Consider the way people give directions to Richmond Senior High, a perennial producer of football champions: "Drive down the road until you see the football stadium. The high school is in the hole behind it."
This year, Richmond's SAT scores averaged 769, well below the state's 841 average. But the county is keeping more students in school: Of those who started high school in 1982, 29 percent never finished; for those who started in 1986, the dropout rate was 17.5 percent.
A little over a third of the high school students plan to attend college. Many will not return to the county.
"Richmond County does not have a lot of opportunities for young people who go off to college and get four-year degrees and would like to come back to the area, " said James, the school superintendent.
"But who's left to drive the economy of Richmond County? So we felt we needed to do something to improve the competencies of the kids who stay here."
The hope, said Joseph W. Grimsley, president of Richmond Community College, is to reduce the numbers of the undereducated, undertrained and underskilled. Those were the kinds of workers who found jobs at Imperial -- if they found jobs at all.
"There is a hidden unemployment thing around here that will bring out workers when work is available, " Grimsley said. "If Imperial Food Products opened up today, I wouldn't have any question about filling the jobs. There are just that many invisible unemployed people."
No one had to sell Rosie Chambers on the value of education. When she died Sept. 3 at Imperial, she was close to getting a degree in human services from Richmond Community College.
She lived in Ellerbe, north of Hamlet, with her grandmother, Roxie Chambers.
About 35 years ago, Roxie Chambers worked the third shift in a cotton mill, but had trouble staying awake. "Roxie, it looks like you're taking your nap, " she remembers the boss saying. "I'd say, 'yup.'" Still, she stuck it out for three years. She then farmed with her husband before getting a job as a custodian at Ellerbe Junior High, where she stayed more than 20 years.
Rosie Chambers, at 23, wanted better.
She went to work at 6:30 in the morning in her blue Ford Fiesta, which she bought with her earnings from Imperial. She'd come home around 3:30 p.m. and study until supper at 5:30. At night, she went to school.
On Sundays, she attended the Powerhouse Church of God in Hamlet. Her grandmother preaches there, and Rosie sang solos.
"She had a voice you could follow when she sang, " her grandmother said. Sometimes, she said, she would find her granddaughter singing away in the kitchen or living room, holding a broom handle as if it were a microphone.
At Richmond Community College, they plan to hang a plaque in memory of Rosie Chambers.
It was a small town in touch with the larger world via the rails. Hamlet was a crossroads - a place where important people passed through, a place where people felt important. Those days passed, and Hamlet became like scores of other North Carolina towns. Times were harder, jobs were more scarce. Hamlet, once home of the luxurious Seaboard Hotel and its own opera house, became the home of Imperial Food Products.
A JOYOUS BIRTH, A TRAGIC DEATH
Reporter: BEN STOCKING Staff writer
ELLERBE -- They thought they would never be able to have a child. That's what the doctors had told them.
But on Aug. 18, Don and Mary Rich experienced what seemed like a miracle: the birth of their baby boy, Cody Allen Rich. He weighed 7 pounds, 9 ounces and had a dimple in his chin, just like his daddy.
Don, a proud father at age 24, was all smiles. Two weeks later, he was dead.
A victim of the Imperial Food Products fire, Don died one week after he started working as a maintenance man at the Hamlet chicken-processing plant.
Mary had lost the husband she loved, and Cody had lost the father he would never know.
When they broke the news to Mary that night, she raced out the front door and ran down the street until she collapsed in a heap.
For the next two weeks, she couldn't eat. She cried constantly. She took anti-anxiety pills. And she kept expecting Don to come home.
She would go to the front door each afternoon at 4:30, waiting for him to return. "I just kept telling myself he was on a job and he would come back, " Mary said. "But he never came back."
It took a good six weeks before Mary realized Don wouldn't be coming home. "The day it finally hit, I had to go talk to a counselor, " she recalled. "I couldn't stop crying."
For an entire month after her husband's death, Mary slept on the living room couch. She couldn't bear to climb into the empty bed she had shared with Don for six years. It seemed so lonely.
Just over a year before the Hamlet fire, Mary's sister, Catherine Suggs, died in a car crash on U.S. 220, not far from her home. So when death took Don away, the hurt was especially deep.
"I thought my whole family was going to leave me, " Mary said. "It seemed like every year, I was going to lose someone I loved."
Don and Mary met in 1985 while working construction jobs at the Laurel Hill Paper Co. near Rockingham. He was helping install machinery; she was doing masonry work. That's what Don liked about Mary -- she wasn't afraid to work. She even tried running a jackhammer one time.
At the beginning of their courtship, they would hop into Don's car and cruise the parking lot at the mall on U.S. 74 in Rockingham. Don drove a red El Camino, one of those sedan-pickup combos. He would grind the clutch and rock the car back and forth in the mall parking lot. "It sounded like a bumblebee, " Mary said.
Don loved cars, and so did Mary. Nearly every weekend they would head to the drag races. Don raced all the time, and Mary competed against other women in a couple of "powder puff" races down in South Carolina.
Don owned many cars over the years, but his favorite by far was his Mustang Cobra. He had a tattoo on his right forearm that showed a cobra rising from a big set of racing wheels.
That wasn't his only tattoo. On his left biceps, Don wore a Rebel flag with two swords crossed over it. The image of the Grim Reaper adorned his right shoulder.
After Don and Mary became born-again Christians about a year and a half ago, Don decided he wanted to get rid of the Grim Reaper; it didn't fit his new outlook.
Don and Mary planned to raise Cody in the church. It was something they used to talk about during Mary's pregnancy.
Don would rub Mary's stomach; he liked to feel Cody kicking inside her. "Hurry up, baby, come on out of there, " he would say, pressing his face up close to Mary's belly so Cody could hear him.
Mary sometimes wonders how she will explain Don's death to Cody.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to tell him yet, " she said, tears streaming down her face. "I'm just going to tell him how much his daddy loved him while he was here."
Don worked at Imperial only one week, but in that short time he came to hate the place. One day, he saw someone spill a box of chicken all over the floor. They picked it up, put it back in the box and sent it on its way.
The place was so unpleasant, Don told Mary, that he was just about ready to quit.
"I wish to God he had, " she said. "It's too late now."
Mary pulled her keepsake trunk from her bedroom. It was filled with cards, letters and other mementos of Don: his wallet, with a picture of Mary inside; a pink velvet box that held the ring he gave her on their fifth wedding anniversary; a heart-shaped plaque that says "M.R. Loves D.R." on it.
Mary reached for the black leather jacket she gave him and pulled it from the trunk. She tried it on once after he died, and she found a chocolate Tootsie Pop in the pocket. She left it there. Don loved chocolate Tootsie Pops.
She took out a letter Don wrote her last Valentine's Day:
"I thought I would just sit down and write you how much that I really love you. I know that I don't tell you that I love you, but don't never think that I don't because I do ... .
"I might not be the best husband in the world but I try. You just don't know how much you brought meaning in my life, and when you told me that we was going to have a baby I was so happy ... . I'm going to try to be a better husband for you and a father to our baby even though I am just a baby myself. I know I might not be able to buy you everything you want, but you know that if I could you know I would ... ."
Along with the letter, Don gave Mary six roses -- one for each year of their marriage.
"I'm proud of that letter, " Mary said before she put it back in the trunk. "I'll treasure that letter till the day I die."
DISPLACED WORKERS STRUGGLING
Reporter: BEN STOCKING; Staff writer
HAMLET -- Thomas Oates is one of the lucky ones: He's working again, at the Perdue Farms chicken plant in Rockingham.
He is one of a handful of Imperial Food Products employees who have gone back to work since the fire Sept. 3. Most are still coping with the emotional and physical consequences of the disaster, making ends meet with help from their families and from several public agencies and private relief organizations that have pitched in.
Jobs for unskilled laborers are scarce in Richmond County, said Betty Dorsett, manager of the county office of the state Employment Security Commission.
Richmond's unemployment rate stands at 7.7 percent, Dorsett said, and employers generally want workers with more education and experience than the typical employee from Imperial, which processed chicken to produce nuggets, boneless breasts and other packaged parts.
Dorsett doesn't know how many former Imperial workers have found employment on their own, but her agency has helped four get new jobs. It also has found money to establish a high school equivalency class for former Imperial employees who never earned diplomas.
Twenty-one people have signed up for the class, which was scheduled to start last week.
Oates, who was not injured in the fire, began at Perdue in mid-October. He works in the evisceration department, where he stands between two machines as chickens come shuttling by hanging from shackles. The first machine cuts the bird open, the second removes its intestines. If the first machine misses a chicken, Oates takes care of it with a pair of scissors and an air-powered cutting tool.
Oates, 38, is working the overnight shift, from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. The hours wreak havoc on his schedule, making it difficult for him to spend time with his wife, visit with friends or take care of errands.
But after just a few weeks, he was already earning $5.45 an hour -- just a nickel less than he made after 1 1/2 years at Imperial. If he stays at Perdue four months, and meets the expectations of his managers, Oates will reach the top of the pay scale: $6.15 per hour.
In the weeks before he returned to work, Oates was one of many former Imperial employees who received financial assistance from the United Way of Richmond County, which helped pay his rent, gas and light bills.
The United Way received $191,000 from people and businesses that sent in donations in the weeks and months after the fire, said Yvonne Loury, the organization's executive director. The Hamlet Ministerial Association raised $50,000 to assist fire victims.
The United Way has provided $50 weekly food vouchers for fire victims, and has covered rent payments up to $250. It has also paid up to $200 a month on utility bills.
Although the organization spent $38,000 to cover fire victims' expenses last month, only $20,000 remained to assist them in December. And donations have stopped coming in, Loury said.
"We don't have enough to get through one more month, " she said. "It's unfortunate, right here at Christmas, that we're running out."
The remaining money will be used to give each Imperial employee one final $96 payment, Loury said. "Unless we get some donations in, this will be the end of it."
About 85 former workers have been collecting unemployment benefits since the fire, the Employment Security Commission's Dorsett said. The payments equal roughly half their previous salary, and last from three to six months, depending on how long they had worked before the fire.
Twenty children who lost parents in the fire have been receiving monthly Social Security payments averaging $390, said Robby Lowry, manger of the Social Security office in Rockingham.
Another 66 workers who suffered injuries in the fire have been receiving workers compensation, said James J. Booker, chairman of the state Industrial Commission, which administers the program. For as long as they are fully disabled, they will receive two-thirds of their average weekly salary.
The workers compensation program will also provide payments to the next of kin of people who died in the fire. For a worker whose average weekly salary was $200, that one-time payment would total $52,800.
Meanwhile, many of the fire victims have filed or plan to file lawsuits against Imperial, hoping to win some money to compensate them for their pain and suffering. Among them is Gail Pouncy, a former Imperial worker who was so traumatized by the fire that she sometimes wonders if she'll ever be able to work again.
"They'll never find me in no factory no more, " Pouncy said. "I don't even have enough energy to screw the top off a soda sometimes ... . We're going to end up poor homeless people, mental people -- that's how we're going to end up if they don't take care of us like they're supposed to."
THE ROAD TO RUIN
Reporter: JIM BARNETT; Staff writer
Before they took jobs at Imperial Food Products Inc. in Hamlet, some employees of the chicken-processing company worked in textile mills. Others flipped burgers at fast-food restaurants. At least one did housekeeping.
As different as the jobs may seem, they had two things in common: They required few skills, if any. And they paid meager wages.
Jobs at Imperial were no better. But workers saw few choices.
"They'd just treat you like dogs, " said Letha Terry, who survived the fire Sept. 3 that killed 25 people and injured 56. "If you had a problem and said something about it, they'd curse you out or say something smart to you: 'If you don't like it, you know where the door is.'"
Part of the problem is that a few big employers can dictate wage scales and working conditions in small towns like Hamlet. Like Terry, many rural working people find that they have just two options -- take a dead-end factory job or move on.
Emmett Roe and his family -- the people who owned and operated the Imperial plant -- didn't have to offer good money to get workers. Top pay at the Roes' plant was about $6 per hour.
Another part of the problem is that average wages for factory work in North Carolina are among the lowest in the nation -- $8.78 per hour in 1990. Only workers in Arkansas, South Dakota and Mississippi were paid less.
Perhaps the biggest strike against rural workers is a lack of education.
According to the 1980 census, the most recent data available, 61 percent of adults in North Carolina's urban areas were high school graduates. But only 49 percent of rural adults had diplomas, and there's no guarantee that all of them had basic math and reading skills.
Like its Southeastern neighbors, North Carolina struggles to overcome its past.
As machines displaced farm workers on a mass scale after World War II, factories sprouted in the countryside to take advantage of an available low-cost work force.
But as international trade barriers evaporate, manufacturers are finding that low wages no longer are enough to keep them competitive with foreign rivals. For example, the import-ravaged apparel industry -- one of the state's biggest and one of the lowest-paying -- has shrunk to 82,000 jobs from a peak of 91,300 in 1984.
Imperial, which opened its Hamlet plant in 1981, was not recruited to North Carolina by state officials. Roe, who then lived in Pennsylvania, bought the plant after seeing it listed for sale in a trade magazine.
So what attracts bottom-rung employers to places like Hamlet?
It's simple economics, said Ernest C. Pearson, an assistant secretary of the state Department of Economic and Community Development who heads North Carolina's recruiting efforts.
Rural people take low-wage jobs because they offer a better standard of living, as unpleasant as the work might be, he said. By the same token, bottom-rung factories survive in places like Hamlet because they are able to attract workers with low pay.
Critics contend that Pearson's department touts the state's low average manufacturing wages to lure industry. One of the department's brochures compares the average to other states next to a headline that says, "Labor costs are extremely competitive in North Carolina."
But Pearson rejects the criticism. Employers interested only in paying the lowest possible wages won't build factories in North Carolina, he said; they will expand in places like Puerto Rico, where wages are lower still.
"If there's no county in this state with compatible wages, then they need to go somewhere else to do business, " he said.
Even jobs at places like Imperial -- safety concerns notwithstanding -- can be a steppingstone for rural people and their communities, Pearson said in an interview at his Raleigh office.
He offered the example of Kinston, an Eastern North Carolina city of about 25,000 people that once depended on the farms that surrounded it. The first factories paid low wages, but the area also has attracted higher-paying employers such as White Consolidated Industries. When WCI's dishwasher plant opened two years ago, 17,000 people applied for 850 jobs.
"I think the critics don't understand how the process works, " Pearson said.
But the old rules of economic development might be changing, said Alexander Keyssar, a labor historian at Duke University.
"There was a period in American history when basically what would happen was that the lower-wage industries would move out, but the higher-wage industries would remain, " he said. "What seems to be happening in the last 20 or 30 years is a decline in the availability of those kinds of jobs ... . The new kinds of jobs that are being created are McDonald's jobs."
Rather than attracting more high-paying jobs, there is evidence that North Carolina's rural communities are attracting more people willing to settle for low wages.
Hispanic migrant workers, who once left at the end of the harvest season, are remaining in the state and taking the lowest-paying jobs, said the Rev. E. James Lewis, director of Christian social ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.
And some marginal companies complicate their employees' struggle for a better life, said Marcellette Morgan, who runs a skill-improvement program at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro.
"One of the problems we have is the low-wage employers, " she said. "They don't want the people to come [to the program] because once they learn, they may be forced to pay them more. That's economics."
THE ROAD TO RUIN
Reporter: C.E. YANDLE JIM BARNETT; Staff writers
HAMLET -- Margaret Banks never met Emmett Roe, but the two had a deal.
Banks worked a tedious packing-room job at Imperial Food Products Inc., Roe's chicken-processing plant in Hamlet. She got $5 an hour -- a wage that kept her off unemployment lines, but offered little else. Roe got to run his plant with some of the cheapest labor in the nation.
But the deal went bad on the morning of Sept. 3: A fire filled the Imperial plant with smoke, sending 25 people -- including Banks, a single mother of two -- to a hellish death.
Low-wage, low-skill laborers like Banks were part of the opportunity Hamlet offered Imperial when the company came to town in late 1980.
Roe and his family wanted to build a network of chicken-processing plants. They had started in Moosic, Pa., near Scranton, with the first Imperial Food Products operation. But organized labor and regulators aggravated Roe in Pennsylvania. The South -- with few unions and a reputation for industry-friendly government -- was Roe's kind of place.
Imperial was a small-time operation next to poultry big shots like Tyson Foods Inc., but Roe's determination to compete was clear. In the 1980s, his company started new processing operations, including a plant near Atlanta and another near Birmingham, Ala. And Hamlet -- not Moosic -- became the model for Roe's new operations.
As in Hamlet, the other two Southern plants operated anonymously in out-of-the-way industrial districts. Family members ran the plants, giving Roe a tight leash on his growing business.
For a while, the plan worked. But Roe's ambition eventually became his downfall.
Roe borrowed heavily to build his empire, leaving little breathing room for a downturn in business. In 1989, the Alabama plant lost its biggest customers and was forced into bankruptcy, and by the time of the Hamlet plant fire, Imperial was headed for collapse.
After the fire, Roe's business fell apart. But others are paying a price much more dear.
Flora Ann Banks of Laurinburg, Margaret's mother, buried her 24-year-old daughter after the tragedy. Now she must raise her orphaned grandchildren, Michael Terrell Banks, 6, and Martika Jacquetta McCollum, 2.
Martika was too young to understand, but Banks told Michael of his mother's death the day of the fire.
"Your mother's not coming back, " she recalled telling him. "The good Lord took her home. She's laid to rest."
"I know, " the boy replied. "Everybody knows."
Born 63 years ago in Troy, N.Y., Emmett J. Roe has spent most of his working life in the food industry. Throughout his career, he has avoided publicity and scrutiny of himself and his company.
Since the fire Sept. 3, Roe has refused repeated requests for interviews. So have his son Brad, 27, and other family members and company managers. The story of the Roes' and Imperial's lives has been gleaned from public documents and interviews with friends and business acquaintances.
Roe's first executive position was vice president of Empire Frozen Foods Inc., which had headquarters in his hometown of Troy.
From 1965 to 1970, he ran Empire's chicken-processing plant in Moosic, the operation he later would buy. The plant was profitable, and Roe didn't mind rolling up his sleeves on occasion to work alongside his employees.
"He worked with us on the floor, " recalled Betty Shotwell, who worked at Empire from 1965 to 1970, then returned in 1983 for another five years. "He boned and packed [chicken]. He worked with us as if he was another worker."
Each September, Roe threw a clambake for his employees at a picnic area away from the plant. The event was a reprieve from the tedium of stripping, breading and frying chicken.
People familiar with Roe say he left Empire in 1970 to go into the restaurant business, but it wasn't long until he returned to Moosic and chicken processing.
In 1973, Roe went back to the Pennsylvania plant to become its owner. Using personal assets as collateral, he leased the plant for five years and then bought it for $200,000, changing its name to Imperial Food Products Inc.
The company started small, with about 40 employees. Roe tapped industry contacts he had developed over the years, landing contracts to supply chicken breasts and nuggets to grocery stores and food suppliers.
But between the time Roe left and the time he returned to buy the plant, the Moosic workers had voted in a union, the United Food and Commercial Workers. The rapport he had enjoyed with the employees disappeared.
"He did not like unions, " Shotwell said. "He just changed. He was more strict. He was very much down to business. He knew the union would be riding herd on him. This is what I think really changed him."
During Roe's three-year absence, the September clambakes had stopped. As owner, he didn't revive the tradition. And he regularly vented his temper at his workers.
"He was a screamer, " Shotwell recalled in a recent interview in Moosic. "His finger could be in your face for an hour screaming at you."
It was in Moosic that Roe began including family members in his business, a practice that he would continue in running his privately held company. His teenage son Brad -- who would later become operations manager of the Hamlet plant -- spent summers and afternoons on the production line.
Among some Moosic workers, Brad Roe developed a reputation much like his father's.
"He was the kind of guy you could punch in the mouth every morning and it wouldn't bother you, " said Ralph Carlacci, a former business representative for the Food and Commercial Workers local.
Emmett Roe's wife, Joan, worked as the company secretary. Daughter Kelly was vice president for marketing and sales. Sons Emmett Jr. and Brad each ran plants, carrying the title of vice president. Joan's nephew, Edward Woncik, served as Moosic plant manager, and later headed the Alabama plant.
People who knew Roe said the tactic allowed him to keep tight control over his scattered operations: Family ties, Roe thought, would ensure the loyalty of his top managers.
Heading for Hamlet
When he returned to Moosic in 1973, Emmett Roe bought into the food business of the future.
At the time, what was called "further-processed" chicken -- such as Imperial's breaded chicken nuggets and tenders -- accounted for only 7 percent of all chicken products sold. But by 1990, that figure had swelled to 26 percent as consumers gobbled up McNuggets, Hot Wings and a host of other new fast foods.
Beef consumption slumped, but the chicken industry -- clustered in the Southeast -- soared.
Like other small producers, Roe's business depended on a handful of major buyers. One of Imperial's biggest was Shoney's Inc., a Nashville, Tenn., restaurant chain that bought more than half its breaded tenders and skinless, boneless breasts from Roe's plants.
"They were a very, very important supplier, " said David Dobbs, Shoney's vice president in charge of purchasing.
The more chicken that people ate, the more that had to be processed -- and the more workers that were needed to process it. But the work was unpleasant at best.
Employees at the Hamlet plant complained of hands and wrists numbed from constant handling of chicken parts. Workers in the fryer room labored near an inferno of cooking oil. And in the icy packing room, some women spent their days hefting boxes weighing up to 40 pounds.
Jobs such as those at Imperial have helped make the poultry-processing industry one of the nation's most hazardous. In North Carolina, it is the most dangerous, according to the most recent data on lost workdays from the U.S. Department of Labor. North Carolina had 30 poultry-processing plants in 1989, more than all but four other states.
Other than avoiding potential hazards, few skills are needed to work in plants like Roe's, so people taking jobs in the industry can command only the lowest of factory wages -- unless, like the Moosic workers, they belong to a union.
"That is one of the dirtiest jobs there is, " said David Segars, secretary of Food and Commercial Workers Local 442 in Georgia.
"The days of legal slavery are over, but I'm not sure it's over in regard to the poultry industry, " he said. "Those people put up with more mental abuse than any other industry."
Roe looked south, where his biggest suppliers operated. A trade magazine advertisement caught his eye: Mello-Buttercup, an ice cream manufacturer based in Wilson, wanted to sell its 33,000-square-foot Hamlet plant.
Roe bought the plant for $137,000 in September 1980, according to Richmond County tax records. But the building needed a lot of work before it was ready for Imperial. Ice cream equipment had to be ripped out and replaced with 26-foot fryers and conveyor belts. The plant's original design was drastically altered.
"They changed it so much I barely recognized it, " said Richard Barnes, Mello-Buttercup's president. "I guess that's not surprising. He cooked stuff, and we froze it."
In Hamlet, Roe found a favorable business climate: Factory wages were low, and there was no food workers' union to force them upward. Cheap labor was easy to find because Richmond County's unemployment rate was among the highest in the state at 9.8 percent.
Roe continued to run his Moosic plant until 1989. By the time he closed it, poultry workers in Pennsylvania were being paid 17 percent more than their counterparts in North Carolina -- an average of $322 per week, compared with $276.
As Roe expanded in Hamlet, he turned the plant over to managers who were part of his family. His son-in-law, Neal Hair, became the manager and lived in Laurinburg. A few years later, Brad Roe moved from Moosic to become operations manager.
Imperial opened in Hamlet in 1981, but news of its arrival traveled slowly. In a town where secrets are hard to keep, Roe and Imperial managed to begin operations with barely a whisper among local leaders.
Tom Smart, a Hamlet businessman who was mayor at the time, heard about the business from a longtime friend, R.L. Altman, who said he had been doing construction work for a new company in town -- Imperial.
"They did not ask for publicity, " Smart said. "They came in very quietly."
The company never registered to do business in the state, as required by the Secretary of State's Office. It never put a sign on its building in Hamlet.
When word finally spread that a new employer had moved in, some Hamlet business leaders stopped by to ask Roe if he wanted to help with fund-raising drives and other civic affairs.
Hamlet's business establishment learned quickly that Roe wanted just one thing -- to be left alone.
When the Richmond County United Way asked permission to solicit contributions from Imperial workers, the company said no. Even other business people got a cool reception.
Donald V. McClain, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, recalled the day he visited the plant and asked Roe if Imperial would join the organization.
"It was like I was trying to get him to join the union, " he said. "That's the type of response I got."
'Contempt for OSHA'
Back at the Moosic plant, Roe began tangling with government inspectors, as well as with his unionized workers.
In August 1985, Helene Kosierowski suffered second- and third-degree burns after a line carrying scalding cooking oil broke loose, spraying her back and legs.
Prompted by a television report about the accident, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector visited the plant. Roe wouldn't let him in.
Three months later, the inspector returned with a search warrant and found several relatively minor safety violations, such as equipment without properly installed protective devices. Imperial paid an $800 fine.
The incident encouraged workers to complain. In 1987, an employee told OSHA of unsafe working conditions.
During a regular survey of Imperial's medical records, OSHA officials found that the Moosic workers' lost-workday injury rate was nearly four times the national average for manufacturing workers. Inspectors wanted to examine the plant again.
This time, Roe was even less receptive. Again, he refused to let an inspector inside the plant. When the inspector returned the next month with another search warrant, Roe erupted.
He didn't want his employees bothered while they were working, he told the inspector. And he didn't want a union representative pulled off the production line to accompany the inspector on his tour -- even though federal law required it.
When he relented and called for the union representative over the company's failing public-address system, Roe spat out a string of obscenities.
In a February 1987 report, Inspector E.F. Donnelly wrote that he got the feeling that Roe had "utter contempt for OSHA."
Imperial ended up paying a $2,560 fine for a series of health and safety violations in Moosic, including citations for unlit exit signs, blocked exits and electrical cords lying in pools of water.
One employee told the inspector that the plant was "an accident waiting to happen." A few months later, a small fire broke out at the Imperial plant, causing $6,000 in damage. No one was injured.
By that time, Roe had developed two distinct styles of dealing with the world around him.
To workers, government officials, union leaders and inspectors such as Donnelly, he was a tyrant, hellbent on pushing product out the factory door.
But to those who served his interests -- buyers, family members, even the bartender at a restaurant he frequented -- he was a model businessman.
"He's a very friendly person a real class guy, a gentleman, " said Angelo Bistocchi of Bistocchi's restaurant in Dunmore, Pa., near Moosic. "Everybody around him was his friend. He was just that type of guy, just a real down-to-earth, hard-working family man, a wonderful guy."
By the late 1980s, the competition was heating up in the further-processing business. The nation's biggest poultry producers added further-processing equipment to their slaughtering plants. Some also bought out small further-processing companies and supplied the plants with their own chickens.
With annual sales estimated at $35 million by the late 1980s, Imperial was still tiny compared to the likes of Tyson Foods Inc. or ConAgra Inc. But Roe, undaunted, developed his own expansion plan.
While regulators were complicating his business in Moosic in the mid-1980s, Roe was meeting little resistance in Hamlet -- no unions, no OSHA inspectors, no workplace safety fines. In fact, the only skirmishes he would have in Hamlet were over the excessive amount of grease Imperial was dumping into the city's sewer system.
The South, it seemed, was a more hospitable place to do business.
In 1988, Roe put himself deep into debt by buying an Alabama company, Haverpride Farms Inc., which operated in Tarrant, a Birmingham suburb. Haverpride, then owned by Northern Foods plc, a British company, was struggling, but Roe was confident he could make the operation a winner.
He secured a $5 million loan from Northeastern Bank of Pennsylvania in Wilkes-Barre by pledging the assets of Haverpride and Imperial, as well as his personal holdings. Nephew Edward Woncik also signed on, pledging his personal wealth.
The Haverpride plant cost $3.5 million, and the remaining $1.5 million was used to finance Imperial's operations.
Meanwhile, Roe had closed a plant in Denver in 1987, according to people familiar with his business dealings. He had gotten control of the Denver plant sometime after opening in Hamlet. Imperial did not register to do business in Colorado.
By 1989, Roe had had his fill of problems in Moosic. He bought another poultry-belt plant in Cumming, Ga., a town of 4,400 people about 25 miles north of Atlanta, and sold the Moosic factory where he had started his business 16 years earlier.
As in Hamlet, Roe had found another building -- a former Mrs. Kinser's Homestyle Foods chicken and potato salad kitchen -- that he could renovate and run in relative obscurity. The plant cost $725,000.
The move to Cumming also offered Roe the other advantages he had found in Hamlet -- plenty of low-wage, non-union workers and proximity to his biggest suppliers, including Cagles Inc. in Atlanta, which was shipping to Haverpride more than 140,000 deboned chickens a week.
With the closing of the Moosic plant, the entire Roe family headed South. Emmett and Joan bought a townhouse, while Emmett Jr. and his wife bought an $88,000 house in north Atlanta. Imperial set up headquarters a few miles away.
Shortly after Roe opened the Cumming plant, a fire broke out, causing nearly $1.2 million in damage. Imperial was forced to set up temporary manufacturing operations in a nearby building.
County fire inspectors pointed out dozens of problems in the plant. Improper ventilation, poorly marked exits and a broken sprinkler system topped the list. Imperial improved the ventilation and added sprinklers, and was back in business in Cumming.
'Where's the chicken?'
Haverpride, however, continued to struggle, and Roe's empire began drowning in debt.
To cover their huge loan payments, Roe and Woncik began cutting corners. Customers started complaining of poor quality, particularly from Haverpride.
One of the Alabama plant's biggest customers -- Lyle Farms Inc., a Georgia food brokerage -- started receiving dozens of letters from grocery stores and individual customers unhappy with Imperial chicken.
The nuggets -- packaged under names like Big Top, Shur-Fine and Jewell -- were criticized as having lots of bread, little meat.
"Where's the chicken?" asked Joan McSouga of Shamoken, Pa., in a letter to her grocer Sept. 29, 1988; the grocer forwarded the letter to Lyle Farms.
In court documents, one Lyle executive contended that cash-strapped Haverpride had made nuggets from "mechanically deboned chicken" -- that is, from slivers of meat steamed from chicken carcasses already stripped of the best cuts.
"I've seen the meat that's gone in it, " Cynthia Dillard, a former Haverpride employee, said in a court deposition. "I've smelled it. And I wouldn't even feed it to my dog."
Lyle, which had an unwritten agreement to buy more than $20 million worth of chicken from Haverpride over a three-year period, backed out of the deal in March 1990. A local school system still was a major customer, but when the school year ended, Haverpride had almost no business left.
Roe also was having labor trouble at Haverpride, where most of the 125 employees belonged to the Food and Commercial Workers union.
"He's just an SOB, " said Jewell Corbett, who worked in the packing department at Haverpride. "They liked to work us to death and they were a hard company to work for."
On March 16, 1990, Haverpride shut down under pressure from the local power company, which was owed more than $4,000 and had promised to cut off Haverpride's electricity over the weekend.
As Corbett and other workers on the second shift ended their evening and walked toward the time clock to punch out, they saw a notice above the clock that said: "You are Indefinitely Terminated."
The closing caused a flurry of protests. Workers sued the company, claiming it had violated the federal Workers' Advance Renotification Act. The law generally requires employers of 50 or more people to give at least 60 days notice before closing a plant.
Matters grew worse when some of the plant's pregnant employees visited their doctors' offices only to learn that Haverpride had not kept up payments on health care for its workers. The plant had stopped paying the $175 a month per worker nearly three months earlier, but had continued to withhold $4 a week from each employee's paycheck.
In retaliation, employees pushed Haverpride into bankruptcy in March 1990.
At a crossroads
Even before Haverpride closed its doors, Imperial Food Products was in trouble. Woncik, who now is in the real estate business in Atlanta, testified in a bankruptcy court deposition that Imperial had been insolvent for at least a year prior to the Alabama plant's closing.
After Haverpride shut down, Imperial apparently stepped up production at the Hamlet and Cumming plants, creating sewage problems. The Roes paid thousands of dollars in fines and were threatened repeatedly with being shut off from the two cities' sewer systems.
In a March 1991 letter, Cumming sanitation engineer Jack Curry told Emmett Roe Jr. -- then the Cumming plant's manager -- that the city reserved the right "to simply pull the plug" on Imperial's waste, and that city officials' patience had been stretched to the limit.
"I'm afraid Mr. Roe we are at a crossroads, " Curry wrote. "Your facilities' wastewater discharge has caused more problems for the City of Cumming's treatment process than all others combined, both industrial and domestic."
In Hamlet, Mick Noland, regional supervisor for the state Division of Environmental Management, recalls "balls of grease the size of cannonballs" being discharged from the Imperial plant.
Ron Niland, Hamlet city manager at the time, said the Imperial plant expanded production in May 1990, about two months after Haverpride was closed. Plant manager Neil Hair, Roe's son-in-law, didn't say anything until city officials traced the sewage problem to Imperial and confronted him.
"They let us in, but they didn't have open arms, " Niland said in an interview. He also recalled that Roe once had told him: "Ron, people will tell you about me. I don't lie. I may prevaricate a lot, but I don't lie."
Death in Hamlet
With Imperial in a financial scramble, former Hamlet workers said, Roe family members pressured them to keep up production. So on the morning of Sept. 3, maintenance workers tried to repair a hydraulic line without shutting down the nearby fryer it controlled.
One former Imperial employee, Bobby Quick, later testified before a congressional committee that Brad Roe had ordered that the job be done as quickly as possible -- precious production time was being lost.
But during the repair, the line came loose from its coupling and spewed fluid onto the floor and the fryer, igniting a fire that quickly spread thick smoke through the building. Moments later, Brad Roe burst into the Hamlet Fire Department, looking for help.
As the bodies of the 25 dead were pulled from the burned-out plant, Brad Roe appeared before television cameras in tank top and jeans. He talked to reporters that day, but has refused requests for interviews since.
In Georgia, Emmett Roe's only initial response was an obscene gesture to a television crew from behind a car window. Prompted by media inquiries, he later issued a short statement expressing his sorrow over the deaths of the workers. The next time Roe wrote the survivors, it was to tell them that the plant wouldn't reopen and that they no longer were employed.
In the days that followed the fire, Roe tried to save his company. He made dozens of trips to Northeastern Bank's Pennsylvania headquarters to ask for more time to repay Imperial's loan.
His pleas failed to persuade bank officials. Under their orders, Roe closed the Cumming plant Oct. 7. ConAgra bought Haverpride for $4 million several months ago, but Roe still faces dozens of lawsuits stemming from his closing of the Alabama plant.
Roe, his family and Imperial also face a mountain of legal problems in North Carolina.
The State Bureau of Investigation is questioning current and former Imperial workers to determine whether management of the Hamlet plant was criminally negligent. SBI director Charles J. Dunn Jr. said he hopes to submit a report to the Richmond County district attorney's office by mid-January.
Roe and Imperial also must deal with civil suits filed against them by survivors of the fire and the families of the dead.
Few friends have been willing to talk about their contact with Roe since the fire, but those who have opened up say he was disturbed by the fire and the 25 deaths.
"He's as distraught, as meek, as I've ever seen him, " said William W. Sawyer Jr., executive vice president of the Cumming/Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, who befriended Roe while recruiting Imperial to the North Georgia community.
"He doesn't have an idea which way to turn, " Mr. Sawyer said. "I think he's shell-shocked ... . Emmett holds his feelings in. But I've got a feeling that when he goes in the shower, he completely falls apart."
The tears Emmett Roe may cry are no help to Flora Ann Banks, Margaret Banks' mother, or to Hamlet's other survivors. But Banks refuses to hate Roe. God won't let her, she said. The businessman, after all, is serving a life sentence.
"He's got to live the rest of his life knowing he could have done something about it, and he didn't, " Banks said. "He's got to live the rest of his life in guilt because of that."
FIRE INSPECTIONS ORDERED FOR ALL N.C. BUSINESSES
Reporter: BEN STOCKING; Staff writer
Feeling heat from the deadly Hamlet fire, state officials decided Tuesday to require fire inspections at all North Carolina workplaces at least once every three years.
The state Building Code Council, on a 13-0 vote, approved a proposal that will require local fire inspectors to follow a specific inspection schedule for the first time.
Supporters of the measure said it will put teeth in the code, which took effect July 1. The code previously required cities and counties to designate an inspector, but didn't require any inspections.
Edward Rich, fire inspections chief for Guilford County, welcomed the change. "A code without inspections is virtually no good, " he said. "It's like having a speed-limit law with no speed limit."
The measure, which is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 1993, will require annual inspections of hazardous industries, such as chemical plants or explosives manufacturers. Non-hazardous industries will be inspected at least once every two years, and all other businesses will be inspected at least once every three years.
Asheboro Fire Chief James W. Smith, who is a council member, said the fire Sept. 3 at the Hamlet chicken-processing plant encouraged the council to approve the measure. Similar proposals were defeated in the past, he said.
"The fact that the Hamlet fire occurred probably made it possible for the committee to go this far in mandating fire inspections without getting strong opposition from all areas of government, " he said.
Twenty-five people died after being trapped behind locked and blocked doors at the Imperial Food Products Inc. plant in Hamlet. No safety inspector had visited the plant in its 11 years of operation.
Under the provision approved Tuesday, plants such as Imperial would be inspected at least every two years. Imperial shut down after the fire.
The move to enact the measure was recommended by a committee of the council, a 13-member board appointed by Gov. James G. Martin that controls the state's building and fire codes.
City and county officials backed the inspection schedule idea but said they need more time to hire and train inspectors, and to find the money to pay for them.
Ellis Hankins, general counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, suggested that the council take more time to consider the idea before voting on a specific plan. He said it would be best to wait until a consensus emerges among local officials about how best to carry out the idea.
"We certainly have no quarrel with what you're doing, " he said. "The tragedy in Hamlet illustrated very vividly some real shortcomings of government at all levels."
But the council voted 10-3 against a proposal to give the matter further study.
Greensboro Fire Marshal Jerry Cox said he fears the proposal may lead to an increase in liability lawsuits against municipalities. "The proposed schedule appears to be rigid, with no flexibility, " he said.
But Leonard McFarling, chief building inspector for Caswell County, said the new measure doesn't go far enough. "I feel like it needs to be a whole lot stiffer than it is, " he said. "I think all of these [businesses] should be inspected annually."
Until the statewide code was approved in July, cities and counties set their own rules for fire inspections.
INSPECTIONS GET HIGH PRIORITY S. C. TOWN
Reporter: STEVE RILEY; Staff writer
TRAVELERS REST, S.C. -- The name of this tiny town conjures the image of sleepiness, a serene stop on U.S. 25 between Greenville and Hendersonville.
That image doesn't apply to the town's fire department.
Firefighters in Travelers Rest, population 3,600, suffer from all the handicaps that could lead to excuses for not working on fire safety: a small staff, a small budget, other things to do. But the town requires in its fire code that each of its 178 businesses and industrial plants be inspected for fire hazards at least once a year.
Most years, firefighters do it twice instead.
"I don't know about everywhere else, " said Fire Chief Glenn M. Pace. "It's just the way we want it done. We don't want the same type of incident that happened in Hamlet to happen here."
A few comparisons: Travelers Rest is smaller than Hamlet, it spends $80,000 a year less on its fire department, and it has the same number of firefighters. Yet Travelers Rest finds the time to perform an extensive schedule of surprise fire inspections.
Hamlet performs none.
Hamlet Fire Chief David Fuller points to the other major difference between the two departments: Hamlet has primary responsibility for ambulance service in a district far wider than its city limits. Travelers Rest has that only as a secondary job.
But that difference reflects priorities at the county and state level. And at the state level, South Carolina has been encouraging fire inspections for more than 30 years.
It does it the old-fashioned way: with money.
The Palmetto State levies a 1 percent tax on fire insurance premiums. The $4 million annual proceeds are forwarded to fire protection districts that certify through quarterly reports that they've performed inspections.
This year, roughly 400 of 650 districts signed on.
"For all buildings, we try to go in every year, " said state Fire Marshal Larry H. Bosell. "I think the 1 percent program is a real kicker for us."
The money that flows to the local fire departments is not enough to make or break a budget: Greenville, for example, gets $90,000; Travelers Rest gets $3,500. The money can be used for recreation equipment or training, not for fire equipment or salaries.
"We're going to do it whether we get the money or we don't, " Pace said of the inspections.
On a Friday morning in October, the Travelers Rest fire station was busy. Country music blared from a radio as Greg Robertson and Richard Johnson prepared to leave for an inspection of a tool-making plant. In a corner, a personal computer held the names of all the town's businesses and the dates they were last inspected.
Robertson and Johnson are two of the department's four certified fire inspectors. During the week, four firefighters are on duty from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and one of them usually heads out for inspections.
But large plants can be covered more quickly with two inspectors. On this day, both Robertson and Johnson piled into a maroon Ford van for the short drive to the tool plant. Pace decided to go along.
At 10:56, the inspectors entered the plant. A receptionist looked up, unworried. She spoke into a loudspeaker.
"Ken, call the switchboard. You have a visitor from the Travelers Rest Fire Department."
Quickly, the plant engineer showed up. He led the group through the building. They looked for improper exit signs, evacuation routes, locked doors, dust on sprinklers.
The engineer had seen the inspectors before. They were in the plant in March, then again for a follow-up inspection. Now, in October, they were back, and the engineer didn't seem to mind.
"It's a help, " he said. "It's a big help. A lot of times, they find stuff you don't think about. They wake you up. In industry, you're worried about making money. You overlook these kind of things."
The inspectors found a few minor violations.
"When we first started the program, we found a lot of problems, " Pace said. "Not necessarily more serious, but more frequent. The more we come in, the less problems we have."
The building is 33,000 square feet -- about the same size of the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet.
The inspection took about an hour.
ONE PLANT'S TRAINING PAYS OFF
Reporter: Steve Riley; Staff writer
Would a more vigilant government have made a difference in Hamlet? Consider what happened this summer at Tyson Foods Inc., a chicken-processing plant in North Little Rock, Ark.
At 1:15 a.m. June 7, production lines were shutting down for the shift. A fire suddenly blazed from underneath the fryer, and the flames chased the fryer operator out of the cooking room.
That's where the similarities with the Imperial Food Products tragedy end. The Tyson plant activated its evacuation plan, and supervisors manned all exits. Within five minutes, all employees were out safely. There were no locked exits.
"My evacuation leaders evacuated over 115 people out of our facility without issuing a Band-Aid, " Mike McAllister, the plant manager, testified recently to Congress.
Tyson clearly had a different attitude than did Imperial. The company had invited Arkansas OSHA officials in for a consultative visit -- a service also offered in North Carolina. But the plant also had been inspected recently by its own safety department and by the North Little Rock Fire Department.
"After the fire was out, we realized how lucky we were and how training for the unexpected had paid off, " McAllister said.
SOME SCARS ARE SLOW TO HEAL
Reporter: BEN STOCKING; Staff writer
HAMLET -- When Gloria Malachi's terrified cousin recently told her someone had just pulled a gun on him, the news made no impression on her. "Come with me to the A&P, " she replied. "Let's go shopping."
Since the Imperial Food Products fire, many of Malachi's actions haven't made much sense to her or to anyone else who knows her. A four-year employee who was trapped inside the burning building, Malachi lost many friends in the fire and spent six days in the hospital afterward.
Like dozens of other survivors, she's trying to cope with the disaster's legacy of nightmares and sadness, of bitterness and pain. Her hands tremble and her breath is short. She forgets things, and becomes terrified at the slightest provocation.
"I've never been like this before, ' Malachi said. 'It's like I'm a nervous wreck."
Doctors and psychologists who have treated some of the fire victims say the Imperial employees are suffering from ailments that could haunt them for years. In some cases, they say, it is difficult to know where the victims' physical problems end and their psychological troubles begin.
Many of them are exhibiting some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, an ailment most often associated with Vietnam veterans but suffered by thousands of people who have survived disasters of all kinds -- wars, earthquakes, fires, floods.
Its symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, fear, memory loss, personality changes, insomnia, distraction and outbursts of anger and irritability, said Cordelia Steele, a counselor at the Sandhills Mental Health Clinic who has treated several of the Imperial fire victims.
Gail Pouncy, 33, worked at Imperial for about eight months before being trapped behind a locked door when the fire broke out. Her sister, Elizabeth Ann Bellamy, 42, died inside the plant, and Bellamy's daughter, Felicia Odom, narrowly avoided dying.
Ever since, Pouncy has been obsessed with the fire, reliving each moment, wondering how such an awful thing could happen.
"I remember this stuff constantly, every day, every night, " she said. "I feel like I can't breathe. I go to coughin'. And I get real hot. I feel like I'm burning."
She's afraid to go near the stove. "If I'm in the kitchen, it seems like I have to be very careful, " she said. "I don't want no explosion to happen."
Recently, while driving to a counseling session at the mental health clinic, Pouncy looked up and realized she was driving down the wrong side of the road.
"Those people who came back alive, we don't even look the same, we don't act the same, we don't feel the same, " she said.
Like many of the people trapped inside the plant, Pouncy suffered smoke inhalation and has been left with respiratory ailments. She suffers from shortness of breath and has two inhalers she uses several times daily. For several weeks, she couldn't talk above a whisper.
Dr. Peter Kussin, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University, said some smoke-inhalation victims may be suffering physical symptoms similar to those of asthma, and a few of the most severely injured -- including one woman he treated -- have suffered varying degrees of brain damage due to lack of oxygen or carbon-monoxide poisoning.
In the weeks after the fire, Johnny Reddick worried that his wife Cleo might have suffered brain damage when she was trapped inside the plant. She has been on edge ever since she came back from the hospital. "The wind could blow a limb and she's jumping and going on, " her husband said.
Sweet, kind and considerate before the fire, Cleo has since become subject to bizarre outbursts of temper.
"A lot of times she just breaks out and starts screaming and hollering at the children, " Reddick said. "The children just walk out of the house ... . It's impossible to live with."
The people who know her say Gloria Malachi's personality has changed since the fire, too. "My boyfriend tells me I'm totally different, like I'm trying to push him away or I don't want to be bothered, " she said. "He said I'm grouchy."
Malachi can't sleep at night unless she takes pills. She tried to go to bed without them one time, but woke up about 3 a.m. She got up and watched TV until dawn.
"I was scared, scared to close my eyes, scared something was going to happen, " she said. "I guess I was scared the house would catch on fire and I couldn't get out."
A BETRAYAL OF TRUST
Reporter: STEVE RILEY; Staff writer
HAMLET -- It started in 1980, the first of 11 years of neglect from the people paid to protect. A government gone AWOL.
It ended this year, the morning after Labor Day, with 25 corpses. The $5-an-hour workers had choked to death on toxic smoke at Imperial Food Products' chicken plant in Hamlet.
Their deaths, as only tragedy can, exposed a tattered, torn safety net -- a system of weak laws, bare-bones staffing and bureaucratic bumbling. Three months after they died needlessly behind locked doors, it is evident that Imperial's employees entrusted their safety to the wrong people.
They trusted their government.
Loretta Goodwin was one of the first dazed workers to get out of the burning plant through a door near a garbage bin after it was unlocked, too late, from the outside. She and her boyfriend, Jerry Davis, harbor hard feelings toward the government that was supposed to protect her.
"It's just like in a prison, " Davis said. "It's bad, man. Our government let this happen."
Loretta Goodwin put it simply: "It's a rough world we're livin' in."
Could have, should have
Davis and Goodwin are right. The shabby safety practices at Imperial should have been detected by any of a half-dozen agencies with authority over the plant:
Local firefighters could have checked the plant for fire hazards. But they didn't.
The county building inspector, after two major fires, could have required sprinklers and different locks on the doors. He didn't.
The General Assembly could have provided more safety inspectors. It didn't, leaving the state far short of federal guidelines.
The state Department of Labor could have better juggled its 43 inspectors to get to more plants such as Imperial. It didn't, often performing fewer inspections than recommended at hazardous industries and moving sluggishly to fill vacant jobs for inspectors.
Federal food inspectors could have been trained to spot safety hazards. They weren't, and they allowed locked doors to stay that way.
Federal safety inspectors who knew of Imperial's poor safety record in Pennsylvania could have called North Carolina with a warning. They didn't, and they left North Carolina without a clue that Imperial Food Products potentially presented a danger.
In a storage area of his Hamlet hardware store, Vernon McDonald inhaled the information, along with a cigarette. The chairman of the Richmond County Board of Commissioners offered a partial excuse for the local neglect.
"There weren't nothing to stop us, " he said. "You know, you could put in an ordinance. But we were assuming, damn it, everybody thought that's what state labor and OSHA was doing."
Since the fire, fingers of blame have extended in all directions.
Local officials say workplace safety is a state responsibility. State Labor Commissioner John C. Brooks, an elected Democrat, and Republican Gov. James G. Martin have blamed the legislature for not providing enough inspectors. Legislators, in turn, blame Brooks for not filling many of the jobs they have funded.
The federal government blames the state, and it has taken over part of North Carolina's workplace safety and health program.
"Twenty-five people lost their lives here, " U.S. Rep. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said at a recent hearing in Washington on the fire. "Everyone is saying 'Not on my watch' to protect thine posterior."
All the bureaucrats, all the politicians, should meet Jerry Davis and Loretta Goodwin.
Davis didn't work at Imperial, and he wasn't in the building during the fire. Goodwin was.
Loretta Goodwin, a plump woman with red-tinted hair, comes from a family of 16 children. She left school in the 10th grade. She needed money, and the teachers paid her little attention, anyway.
"If your mother wasn't rich, you got overlooked in school, " she said. "It made me lose interest."
At 43, Goodwin has five children and five grandchildren. She worked as a nurse's aide for 13 years before going to work on the lines at Imperial. She left her former job because of the stress.
"I got so attached to the people I was dealing with, " she recalled. "When they died, it took a toll on me."
Goodwin got out of the Imperial fire, her stomach horribly swollen from inhaling smoke. She suffers from nightmares, and she has been seeing a psychologist.
Sometimes she talks to people who aren't there.
All this has been difficult for Davis as well. He listened as Goodwin talked, his eyes red, a beer in his hand. He became enraged when the topics of the fire and government came together.
"The government let them down, " he said. "The government should never have allowed this. That plant's been running for 11 years. It ain't never been inspected."
His voice was steadily rising. Suddenly, Jerry Davis was shouting.
"Do you think I can put a hot dog stand up out there and they wouldn't be investigating me? Something done went wrong, and now it's too late. Those people done died."
Yes, but why?
How can it be that in 11 years of operating in a building that grew to 37,000 square feet, a building only a stone's throw from Hamlet's Main Street, Imperial Food Products never had a visit from a safety or fire inspector? How could this company operate out of the sight of government for more than a decade?
The answer lies not in one agency, not with one official. There is plenty of blame to go around.
No money, no time
Sept. 3 dawned clear and unseasonably mild. Loretta Goodwin, after having taken Labor Day off, was in Imperial's trim room that Tuesday morning, pulling prime strips of chicken -- called tenders -- from the center of breasts. She was working alongside Lillian Wall, her best friend, who was telling Goodwin that she was tired of handling chilled chicken and planned to get a new job at a hosiery mill.
"Her hands were so cold, " Goodwin said.
As the two talked and worked, a group of women came toward them from the processing room, where the chicken was cooked. They were bunched together so tightly that they couldn't move quickly. Goodwin heard someone say, "We can get out over here."
That voice sent the group toward a door at the garbage bin, which was only a few feet away. The directions were right, but the idea was wrong. They were headed toward a locked door.
Goodwin, Wall and their fellow workers had never been through a fire drill at the plant.
That same morning, the Hamlet Fire Department's glistening new $216,000 firetruck was scheduled to make a training run.
At 8:24 a.m., those plans changed. Brad Roe, the plant's operations manager and son of Imperial owner Emmett Roe, burst through the doors at the fire station. He shouted something about a fire at Imperial Food Products, then hopped in his car and sped back to the plant.
Hamlet firefighters had been in the Imperial building twice before, both times to fight fires in the early 1980s. Never to inspect for fire hazards.
Neither fire was minor. The first, in 1980, caused damage the fire department estimated at $200,000.
In 1983, damage from the second fire was estimated at $75,000. Afterward, Hamlet Fire Chief David Fuller suggested to the county building inspector that Imperial put an extinguishing system on the plant's chicken cooker, where the fire had originated.
It was installed, but the fire department never returned to see if it worked.
"It wasn't our job, " Fuller said.
By now, David Fuller has tired of the questions. No, the eight-man Hamlet Fire Department doesn't conduct fire inspections, which could detect hazards and the lack of evacuation plans and fire drills. Yes, sometimes firefighters get their first look inside a building when it's burning.
The department's time, he said, is consumed by real fire runs, emergency medical calls and fire education programs, offered primarily in local schools.
"Children are probably better educated on how to get out of a building than are adults, " offered Hamlet Mayor Abbie Covington.
Hamlet, population 6,196, is a small town with a tiny tax base. Ron Niland, the former city manager, said most towns its size can expect at least 20 percent of tax revenues to come from business and industry. In Hamlet, with its small downtown, lack of industry and large residential areas, the figure is "3 or 4 percent, " he said.
The result is a $4 million budget, of which 8 percent -- or $324,800 -- goes for fire protection. That's a fairly large fire budget for a city the size of Hamlet, but the city since 1979 has left its building inspections to the county -- and has never discussed hiring a fire inspector.
"This is not an issue for city government, " argued Niland, who left Hamlet in August for the city manager's job in Mount Airy. "It should not be put on city government. Most towns the size of Hamlet don't have a full-time fire department. Who's going to provide the fire inspectors?"
Loretta Goodwin followed her frantic co-workers into the shed next to the garbage bin, but there was no way out. The door was locked from the outside. The large bin was inserted into another opening. A tractor-trailer that had delivered a load of chicken that morning was backed into the loading dock.
Goodwin was one of about 40 people who ran to the shed. She was trapped by a lock that a fire inspector doubtless would have found and removed. But Hamlet had no fire inspector. Neither did Richmond County. And neither did the state of North Carolina.
Until 1989, the legislature had been silent on local fire safety. Cities and counties could adopt one of several national fire codes, write ordinances of their own and conduct inspections. Or they could do nothing.
Some, particularly larger cities such as Greensboro and Raleigh, adopted codes and developed fire inspection programs. Raleigh now uses a permit system to reach all high-hazard employers once a year.
"We've found locked doors, and I've seen the locks swinging, " unlocked just ahead of the inspector, said Raleigh Fire Marshal Earl F. Fowler.
But with smaller budgets and no state requirements, many local governments, including Hamlet and Richmond County, did nothing.
"You probably had them all over the state, for the simple reason that there was no mandated fire code, " said Richard Strickland, Rocky Mount's fire marshal, who serves as president of the N.C. Fire Marshals Association.
Fire officials across the state, along with the state Department of Insurance, recognized the shortcomings of such a helter-skelter system. In 1989, they persuaded the legislature to authorize a statewide fire code, thought to be the first of its kind.
Starting July 1 this year, all local governments were to have hired or designated a fire inspector. But there was a catch: It was up to the local government to decide when -- or whether -- the inspector had to do anything. And a violation of the fire code would net only a $50 fine.
Niland, the former Hamlet city manager, remembers receiving notice from the state Department of Insurance that the town needed to hire an inspector.
"I do remember that the fire chief got a letter, " Niland said. "He said, 'I don't have the people to do it.' I said, 'I know you don't have the people to do it.' It was sort of put aside."
In Rockingham, the county seat, the topic wasn't addressed until June 27, when Richmond County declared it would hire a fire inspector -- just in time to comply with the new state regulation.
The county commissioners still haven't set a schedule for required inspections. They are waiting to see what the state will force them to do.
A look inside
Jack Thompson found out the hard way that Imperial Food Products was setting up shop in Hamlet. The building caught on fire.
It was Nov. 1, 1980, about a month after Emmett Roe bought the old Buttercup Ice Cream plant. A spark from a welder working on building renovations smoldered until, late in the evening, it ignited some sawdust.
The welder was there to cut out ice cream equipment and to start preparing the building for its new owners. But the company had no building permit.
Thompson, 62, has been Richmond County's building inspector since 1978. He wears his white hair cropped close and has a tattoo on his forearm.
"Most of the time you need to get a permit before you start the work, " Thompson said. "But they were taking [things] out. I wouldn't worry too much about that."
The state Department of Insurance does worry about such things. It recently issued a report citing Imperial for more than a dozen violations of building codes and state laws, including several instances in which the company didn't apply for proper permits.
After the 1980 fire, Imperial applied for a building permit, declaring that the repairs -- mostly to the roof -- would cost $125,000. The State Building Code says that if an existing building suffers damage of more than 50 percent of its "physical value, " it must be made to conform to the requirements for new buildings.
But the code leaves it up to the local inspection department to determine what that physical value is.
"It doesn't say he has got to go to the tax office, " Vernon McDonald, the county commissioner, noted ruefully.
The 1981 county tax listings show the Imperial building was valued for taxes at $89,740, but he did not force the company to bring the building up to code.
The code would have required sprinklers and other safety improvements -- including doors that can't be locked to keep people on the inside from getting out.
Recently, Thompson was asked to explain his decision. He immediately walked over to a desk in his spartan office and drew an imaginary line down the middle.
"If one half is scuffed up, and the other half isn't, that's 50 percent, " he said. "The only significant damage was to the roof. If it's going to cost $125,000 to put the roof up there, the walls and the floor are worth more than $125,000."
In 1983, the building caught fire again, with damage estimated by the fire department at $75,000. Again, the company applied for a $125,000 building permit.
Again, Thompson did not force the company to make safety improvements.
When Richmond County decided to employ a fire inspector, Thompson didn't want the job. The county gave it to him anyway.
Every 75 years
The Imperial workers who had scrambled to the door near the garbage bin were choking on smoke by the time someone opened it from the outside. Loretta Goodwin stumbled out. Brad Roe grabbed her by the arm and told her to lie down on the grass in front of the shed.
Her friend, Lillian Wall, was dead. They had left the trim table side by side. Both ran to the same place. One was dead, the other alive.
"Lillian was a diabetic, " Goodwin explained. "I feel like she went into a diabetic shock. Plus, while they were screaming, I remained silent."
Goodwin and Wall were supposed to be protected by the state's workplace safety and health program. But at the time of the fire, its staffing would have gotten an inspector to each North Carolina employer about every 75 years.
Imperial had only been open for 11.
North Carolina's program, run by the state Department of Labor under the oversight of the federal government, is staffed so poorly and issues fines so sporadically that it has never served as a threat significant enough to force employers to think about safety.
Consider these numbers: At the time of the Hamlet fire, the state employed 29 workplace safety inspectors. Only 16 of them were fully trained to conduct inspections at an estimated 166,000 workplaces.
At the time, North Carolina employed 39 people at its highway welcome centers.
It was paying 203 wildlife agents to enforce hunting laws.
The state zoo had 158 people on the payroll.
And at the State Fair in October, two shifts of Highway Patrol troopers -- 78 in all -- directed traffic each day.
As bad as that seems, this may be worse: The Labor Department's force of inspectors has actually shrunk in the past 10 years, while the number of workplaces has mushroomed.
In 1980, the state had 38 safety inspectors, who were responsible for 111,000 workplaces.
W. Bruce Ethridge knows the numbers. He's a state representative from Beaufort, a Democrat who chairs the subcommittee that deals with the Labor Department's budget. He said the legislature simply was interested in other things, and the federal government wasn't pressing the issue.
"Every time we tried to provide funds for additional inspectors, it seems like it was an impossible task to get done, " Ethridge said. "It seemed like we were getting by without it, and the feds were continuing to let us get by running the program."
The federal government contends that the state needs 50 health inspectors and 64 safety inspectors, but that benchmark carries a bit of hypocrisy: Federal officials have never lived up to their promise to match the state's financial commitment 50-50, and they admit they wouldn't have 114 inspectors in the state if they were running the program.
The U.S. Department of Labor has been watching North Carolina's workplace safety program since it started in 1973, finding faults but never issuing major discipline.
Evaluators consistently have cited a chronic slowness in the state's response to complaints. And they repeatedly have noted that the state spends far too little time inspecting dangerous industries.
In 1983, for example, North Carolina inspectors made it to only about 4 percent of the high-hazard industries in the state, compared to a federal rate of nearly 45 percent. In 1989, the state inspected only about 6 percent of its dangerous industries.
Still, the federal government did nothing. In fact, it continued to give North Carolina passing grades.
After the fire, under pressure from Congress, U.S. Labor Secretary Lynn Martin decided to send 14 inspectors to North Carolina -- but kept them separate from the state program because of differences with Brooks, the state labor commissioner.
Brooks possesses a prickly personality, and it has cost him with the legislature as well as with federal bureaucrats.
His difficult disposition and his failure to fill the positions already granted have hurt his chances of getting more inspectors. In some years, his department's vacancy rate has hovered around 20 percent, a number he attributes in part to federal failure to match state money for inspector positions.
Legislators say the vacancy rate has been difficult to overcome in budget deliberations.
"It is the most effective argument in the budget process: 'You haven't used what you've got, '" said state Rep. Harry E. Payne Jr. of Carolina Beach, a Democrat who plans to run against Brooks next year. "It's a crushing argument."
Meanwhile, the number of inspections Brooks' department conducts has been dropping steadily.
In 1980, for example, OSHA inspectors visited 5,572 workplaces in the state. In the budget year that ended in September, the number had dwindled to 1,193.
Assistant Labor Commissioner Charles Jeffress said part of the reason for the dramatic drop is that inspections are becoming more complex and are taking more time. But the Labor Department carried 14 vacancies in the OSHA program last year, and Jeffress recently acknowledged that "some of them were vacant because we didn't recruit hard enough to fill them."
With so few inspections being done, picking the right places to go is important. But state workplace safety inspectors have little time for elective inspections in high-hazard industries. Most of their time is consumed investigating on-the-job deaths and accidents, along with complaints filed by workers.
Still, the Labor Department does compile statistics on the most dangerous industries, and tries to target a few for inspection each year. The lists of companies to be inspected are generated by computer, and one example shows that the results can be haphazard: While the state never inspected Imperial, inspectors made three trips in four years to an ice cream distributorship operating out of the Imperial building.
More specific information about individual plants could be available, but the department hasn't pushed for it and doesn't seem to want it.
The department, for example, sends out a questionnaire each year to 15,000 businesses. The ones that comply -- and most of them do -- send in their logs of on-the-job injuries. But under a confidentiality agreement, the statistical arm of the Labor Department keeps the data on individual plants from its safety inspectors.
"Our targeting is industry by industry, not firm by firm, " Jeffress said.
Similar information piles up daily at the state Industrial Commission, which handles workers compensation claims. The commission has the information to determine which plants are really dangerous, but under state law, it shares the information with no one.
James J. Booker, chairman of the Industrial Commission, said he's not inclined to provide on-the-job injury information to the Labor Department or anyone else. He said it would take too much time.
"Our computer system will not kick that out, " Booker said. "We have not the people to keep up with that type of stuff."
Even with all the odds against it, the Labor Department did know something about Imperial. According to a memo written by Davis Layne, regional federal OSHA administrator, state OSHA received an anonymous telephone call in 1987 from someone complaining about dirty bathrooms and the presence of lice and maggots at the plant.
As it does with most anonymous complaints, the department wrote the company a letter outlining the accusations and received a "satisfactory response."
A tragic touch of irony: This year, Imperial Food Products' number came up.
According to Layne's memo, it was on a list of businesses to be scheduled for an inspection sometime in 1991.
Ought to be a law
That was too late for Loretta Goodwin. She has nightmares every night. She panics when she's in a locked area. She forgets things, misses appointments.
Once, she thought she saw Lillian Wall at the kitchen table. She started a conversation with her dead friend.
"It just took a lot from me, " she said of the past months. "It took a whole lot from me."
But will the state ever give anything back? Will this tragedy lead to real reform?
At the big, maze-like building that is home to the North Carolina General Assembly, the issues come up year after year: How can the state better protect its workers? Doesn't the workers compensation law need rewriting? And can it be done without putting an undue strain on business?
Usually, the last question overshadows the others.
Daniel T. Blue Jr. has been through the wars. The House speaker, who has fought for improvements in the state's workers compensation law, recalled that this year's fight over education funding had just ended when lawmakers turned their attention to providing money for more workplace inspectors.
The legislators' attention span proved short.
"The will was not there on the part of some folks, " Blue said. "Any time you're dealing in safety regulations, quite often you don't see the returns. It's hard to see who wasn't injured or who wasn't killed."
But after Hamlet, it'll be far easier to see who was. At every turn, legislators are likely to be reminded of the 25 faces, the 25 bodies, the 25 lives.
That doesn't mean, however, that worker safety issues will travel an easy road in the North Carolina General Assembly. They never have. Many legislators, particularly those with business backgrounds, believe it's up to employers to provide safe working conditions -- and that it's next to impossible for government to fill the gaps.
"You can't blame the state for every damn thing, " said state Sen. William D. Goldston Jr., an Eden Democrat. "How can we be responsible for all these places? Why don't we put 10 [inspectors] in a county that's 1,000 in the state? Can we afford that? The taxes would have to go too high."
Goldston paused to reflect, then offered an idea: "What you've got to do is put the fear of God in those you do pick up."
But the state has not done that. The legislature still forbids the Labor Department to fine local or state government workplaces, and its fines for private industry have lagged behind those of other states.
One study, conducted by the National Safe Workplace Institute, ranked North Carolina in a tie for 47th in the size of fines assessed for serious safety violations.
This year, the legislature did approve new OSHA penalties that track a federal law, giving state inspectors the ability to levy bigger fines. But those types of victories have been rare for workers.
Now, after Hamlet, legislators -- and other state agencies -- have another chance to do something to protect workers. Immediately after the fire, the governor announced that he would provide $1.4 million to hire 27 new safety inspectors, increasing the number to 64 -- the federal benchmark for safety.
Martin also said he would free $1.6 million to allow the Department of Insurance to hire 40 fire inspectors to help local governments with fire inspections.
Still, three months after the fire, little else seems to have changed.
The federal inspectors in the state have scheduled 55 inspections based on complaints, but many other complaints get answered by mail. A committee formed in the legislature to study reforms has met only once. The only charges filed so far are against a Washington lawyer for trying to solicit clients.
Local leaders are looking for leadership from Raleigh.
"We need to get the legislation in place, " said McDonald, the Richmond County commissioner, "to make sure nothing, damn it, ever happens like this again."
Edward F. Donnelly approached the Imperial Food Products plant in Moosic, Pa., on Feb. 4, 1987. He wasn't there long.
The federal OSHA safety officer got a chance to examine the company's injury rates, found them to be high, and told Emmett J. Roe, the company's owner, he planned to conduct a comprehensive inspection.
Roe told him to get a search warrant.
Donnelly did, and returned Feb. 20. He found an array of serious violations and a belligerent owner who cursed a lot and accused him of nitpicking. On his notes of the inspection, he scribbled: "Two other plants, located in Hamlet, N.C., and Denver, Colorado."
Yet nobody from federal OSHA ever bothered to inform anybody in North Carolina that they might want to take a look at the chicken plant owned by Emmett Roe.
"We have not done that that I'm aware of, " said Andrew Hedesh, area director of OSHA in Pennsylvania. "Basically, we're doing inspections of a particular facility. Each plant is taken separately."
In fact, federal OSHA has no policy to ensure that such information is passed on.
"That does happen on occasion, " said OSHA spokesman Douglas Fuller. "There is nothing that would guarantee that."
Such policy angers state officials.
"If you're a bad driver in Pennsylvania, and come down here and apply for a license, the points follow you, " said Payne, the state representative. "You ought to pay the price for being a bad risk and be rewarded for being a good risk."
Jeffress, the assistant labor commissioner, said a call from OSHA in Pennsylvania would likely have generated an inspection at Imperial.
"We accept referrals from other agencies, " he said. "If they call us and say, 'We've seen this guy in action and you ought to take a look, ' we could accept that as a referral."
So, for a variety of reasons, the state workplace safety program never entered Imperial's doors until after 25 people died. But one agency had someone in the plant every day of operation: the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Its inspectors were there to inspect food, not safety conditions. But they had known about the locked doors.
Grady Hussey, a substitute USDA inspector, cited Imperial managers June 19 for leaving two doors open in the area of the trash bin, allowing flies to enter the building. He recommended the doors be closed.
An Imperial manager responded in writing that he planned to lock the door that led outside from the trash bin. Hussey approved.
It was that door that Loretta Goodwin and Lillian Wall ran for on the morning of Sept. 3.
Another USDA inspector knew of the locked door. Kenneth Booker, the regular day-shift inspector, had returned from time away to find the door near the trash bin locked, and said he told Neal Hair, the plant manager, that the door was a safety hazard.
"He responded that everyone [supervisors] had a key and it could be unlocked quickly, " Booker testified last month at a congressional hearing. He did nothing else.
And Booker never did anything about a locked door leading outside from the employees' break room, which a worker managed to kick open the morning of the fire. Booker testified he had known about it for five years.
Under congressional pressure since the tragedy, the USDA grudgingly is changing its ways. The agency will have OSHA train its inspectors on safety hazards, is considering forcing employers to prove that their plants meet fire codes, and will have its inspectors conduct their own fire drills at plants where no safety and evacuation plans are in effect.
But congressional critics such as Rep. Charles G. Rose III, a North Carolina Democrat, say that USDA already had directives in place that required supervisors to stress safety to inspectors.
"Top brass in your agency chose not to enforce your workplace safety regulations, " Rose said in lecturing a USDA administrator during the recent hearing. "Mr. Booker did not fail the agency. The agency failed Mr. Booker."
Jerry Davis, Loretta Goodwin's boyfriend, says government, all of government, failed in Hamlet. He doesn't think Goodwin will ever be the same.
"I don't like the way my woman's going to have to live the rest of her life -- with these nightmares, this trembling, " he said.
When she goes to bed at night, Jerry said, Loretta sometimes talks in her sleep: "Y'all get out of here! Y'all get out of here!"
"I say, 'There ain't no one in here, '" he said. Even after he wakes her, "She still be scared. She say, 'We goin' to die.'"
Goodwin is exhausted from it all.
"I've been to hell and back, " she said.
Loretta Goodwin's awful journey started with a fall through government's safety net.
The question was being asked before the last body was pulled from the Imperial Food Products plant: Who was to blame? It is still being asked by government officals, worker advocates and ordinary citizens who wonder whether their work places are safe. And while the finger pointing continues, another question looms: Will it happen again?
FIRE AT IMPERIAL FOOD PRODUCTS INC.
Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1991, Hamlet, N.C.
5 a.m. - 8 a.m.: First-shift employees arrived for work.
6:50 a.m.: Workers began setting up marinade line.
8:15 a.m.: Hydraulic line ruptured at a coupling about 5 feet off the floor as maintenance workers made repairs at the 26-foot-long, natural gas-powered fryer. A fine spray of hydraulic fluid hit the fryer's 375-degree burners, creating a fireball that probably lasted about 30 seconds. Fifty-five gallons of fuel burned, creating thick, toxic smoke.
8:24 a.m.: Hamlet Fire Department notified by Brad Roe, who drove to the station because telephones at the plant were out.
8:27 a.m.: First fire trucks arrived at the plant. Firefighters immediately found 14 casualties -- three fatalities and 11 injuries -- outside south end of building.
8:45 a.m.: Team of three firefighters entered south end of plant through loading dock door. bodies found in that area and removed. At the same time, fire team entered northwest side but is unable to continue because of heat and fire.
8:55 a.m.: Another body found under conveyor belt at south end of building.
10 a.m.: Fire extinguished with foam and water.
10:18 a.m.: Female survivor removed from cooler at southwest corner. Part of roof collapsed.
10:28 a.m. - 11:31 a.m.: Twelve bodies and four survivors removed from cooler area.
11:50 a.m. -- 12:15 a.m.: Six bodies removed from northern end of processing room.
12:10 a.m.: Final survivor found in blast freezer area.
Death Toll: 25
THE PEOPLE WHO DIED
DAVID MICHAEL ALBRIGHT
PEGGY FAIRLEY ANDERSON
Line worker, tender line
Married, mother of eight
MARGARET TERESA BANKS
Mother of two
FRED BARRINGTON JR.
JOSEPHINE BRIGMAN BARRINGTON
Married, mother of five
ELIZABETH ANN BELLAMY
Hometown: Bennettsville, S.C.
GAIL VIVIAN CAMPBELL
ROSIE ANN CHAMBERS
JOSIE MAE COULTER
PHILIP RAY DAWKINS
Lance vending machine salesman
JOHN ROBERT GAGNON
BERTHA C. JARRELL
Grader in trim room
Mother of three
BRENDA GAIL KELLY
JANICE MARIE WALL LYNCH
MICHAEL ALLEN MORRISON
Product handler, trim room
ROSE MARIE GIBSON PEELE
Hometown: Bennettsville, S.C.
MARY ALICE ARNOLD QUICK
CYNTHIA MARIE RATLIFF
MARTHA ELAINE RATLIFF
DONALD BRUCE RICH
MINNIE MAE THOMPSON
CYNTHIA SUSAN CHAVIS WALL
MARY LILLIAN WALL
Packing? Trim room?
JEFFERY ANTONIO WEBB
ROSE LYNETTE WILKINS
Hometown: Laurel Hill