HAMLET, N.C. — Fire broke out near a 26-foot-long, deep-fat fryer fueled by natural gas at a chicken-processing plant in this rural community, killing at least 25 minimum-wage employees and injuring at least 49 others Tuesday morning, authorities said.
Friends and relatives of victims at the Imperial Food Products plant said locked doors at the one-story brick and cinder-block building contributed to the death toll. Most of the victims suffered from smoke inhalation, not burns, fire officials reported.
"I don't see how people can lock doors in a plant where you know something like this can happen," said Thomas Brown, 25, whose cousin was flown to a hospital in Durham, about 100 miles north, to be treated for smoke inhalation.
State safety officials had never inspected the 11-year-old plant, which makes chicken nuggets and marinated chicken breasts sold at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, said Charles Jeffress, assistant commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Labor.
"I'm sure that there are many others" that have not been inspected, Jeffress told the Associated Press. He said that the state does not have enough inspectors to reach every plant and that it never received a safety complaint about the Imperial Food plant.
"I have heard about 10,000 allegations that doors were locked, but I cannot confirm whether any were locked," Hamlet Fire Chief David Fuller said. Many victims were found near doorways, he said, indicating that they may have been overcome by smoke.
The fire began with a rupture in a hydraulic line powering a conveyor belt that carried chicken parts to the fryer, Charles Dunn, deputy director of the State Bureau of Investigation, said Tuesday night. It was reported at 8:20 a.m. when about 90 of 120 first-shift employees had arrived for work, authorities said.
A woman who had been in the plant canteen told the Associated Press that people rushed in yelling: "Fire! Fire!" The door from the canteen to the outside was locked, and a man had to break the door open so those inside could escape.
Carolyn Rainwater, a plant worker, told the wire service that she heard people screaming, saying, "I saw a big puff of black smoke, and I started running for the back door." But it was blocked by a delivery truck, and workers had to wait for it to be moved, she said.
"I never felt so helpless in all my life," said Hamlet Police Lt. Wayne Downer, one of the first people on the scene. "The smoke was so thick it about choked me to death. There was no way you could get inside. There was just no way to breathe."
In the first minutes, before firefighters outfitted with breathing equipment could enter the building, employees were seen carrying out the bodies of co-workers.
"You couldn't tell if the bodies were black or white, because everybody was black from the smoke," Downer said.
Fuller said that, after a fire at the plant in 1983, the owner installed, at the fire department's request, a "state of the art" automatic carbon dioxide sprinkler system next to the deep-fat fryer. He said he was not certain whether the system was activated Tuesday.
Fuller noted that his fire department, which has eight full-time employees, has no building inspection division and never conducted a safety check of the plant.
More than 200 fire and rescue personnel responded from throughout surrounding Richmond County. They did not finish bringing bodies out of the 30,000-square-foot plant until early afternoon. Victims were flown to hospitals in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill and Durham. Names of the victims were not released Tuesday night, pending notification of next of kin.
"At first, we thought a lot of the victims had suffered burns because they were covered with black soot," said Stephen C. Pierce, administrator of the Hamlet Hospital. "But it quickly became obvious that . . . they had inhaled toxic fumes. These victims were mostly young. They had strong hearts. They just had no lungs anymore."
Hamlet is a quiet town of 6,700 about 70 miles southeast of Charlotte in the heart of the textile and poultry region of south-central North Carolina.
"In a small town, you can't imagine how hard a tragedy like this hits, because everyone is knit so closely together," said Mayor Abbie Covington, who briefly broke down and wept as she conducted a mid-afternoon news conference.
She said one of the first firefighters at the scene "pulled out a victim who turned out to be his father." She declined to identify the firefighter. The father, she said, was not a plant employee but worked for a food service company and was making a regular delivery to vending machines in the plant. He died in the blaze.
Hundreds of residents spent the day milling around the plant, which covers about half a city block next to a railroad track and a housing project.
"This is terrible, and it could have been prevented," said Doris Patterson, who said she had worked at Imperial Food when the 1983 fire occurred. "All of us who have worked there and live around here know that this is a very unsafe place to work."