On September 3, 1991, a fire swept through the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, killing 25 people and injuring 56 others in one of the state’s deadliest industrial accidents.
Fire started inside the chicken processing plant at about 8:15 a.m. when a hydraulic line ruptured, spraying fluid into gas burners beneath a deep-fat fryer. Blocked and/or locked exit doors prevented workers from escaping the thick smoke and flames. Investigators later found the plant had no sprinkler or fire alarm system, had never undergone a safety inspection and had never held fire safety drills for workers. Outrage over the violations sparked national attention and prompted calls for workplace safety improvements. In 1992, the General Assembly approved a package of workplace safety bills, and the state labor department hired additional inspectors.
In time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Imperial with 83 safety violations totaling $808,150 in penalties. Plant owner Emmett Roe filed bankruptcy and closed the plant. He accepted a plea agreement on involuntary manslaughter charges and was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison but was paroled in 1997 after serving four-and-a-half years. Around 20 civil suits were filed against Imperial. Bankruptcy court eventually paid about $16 million to survivors and victims’ families.
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