The Hamlet Fire

On September 3rd, 1991, a fire erupted at the Imperial Food Products chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. The blaze and toxic smoke killed 25 people and injured dozens. Many of the employees tried to escape through the exits, but they were trapped because several of the doors were padlocked from the outside. 28 years later, Hamlet residents and former employees of the plant are still grappling with the painful memories. Producer Charlie Shelton-Ormond travels to Hamlet to learn more.


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Brian: So today on the show, the history of industrial disasters.

Nathan: How they changed the landscape of American capitalism.

Brian: And Erin Brockovich tells us what has changed and what hasn’t since she took on California’s biggest energy company in the 1990s.

Nathan: In September 1991, a fire erupted inside a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Caroline. The flames and toxic smoke killed 25 people and injured dozens. Many of the employees tried to escape through the exits, but they were trapped because several of the doors were padlocked from the outside. Now, 28 years later, Hamlet residents and former employees of the plant are till grappling with the painful memory. Our producer, Charlie Shelton-Ormond, went to Hamlet and spoke with some of the people who were there the day of the fire. Here he is with the story.

Charlie: Annette Peirce Zimmerman has lived in Hamlet her whole life.

Annette: All my life, 53 years.

Charlie: Annette spends a lot of time working for her church. She’s the church secretary, she runs a food pantry there …

Annette: And we’ve been feeding the men at the homeless shelter every fourth Wednesday for past three years.

Charlie: But it isn’t always easy for Annette to stay on the go. She carries with her constant reminders of the tragedy that struck Hamlet nearly three decades ago.

Annette: I have been sick for the past 27, 28 years. My body has gone through numerous aches and pains and changes. Before the fire, I never had a headache. Since the fire, I don’t think I can go a week … I haven’t had a week where I didn’t have a headache. The pain is a constant reminder of what we’ve been through.

Charlie: Annette worked at the Imperial Food Products chicken processing plant for three years before a deadly fire erupted inside the facility. During her time there, she says she mostly worked in packing department.

Annette: By the time it reached us, the chicken was already fried frozen, and then typical day I’d go in at seven or eight depending on what orders we had. Go in the packing room, I would weight chicken tenders. I enjoyed my job. I think I enjoyed the people more than the job. If you saw me, you’d always see a lady named Brenda Kelly and Margaret Banks no matter what. They called us the Three Musketeers.

Charlie: Even though she appreciated her community of coworkers, Annette says the conditions in the plant could be tough. Just for example, employees might find themselves working the fry line where it was so hot that even in the middle of winter, you’d be stripped down to very little clothing. But no matter where you were in the plant, it was hard to avoid the smell permeating through the building.

Annette: It smelled raw chicken at times. Until you got used to it, it could be quite unbearable, and walking through the fryer area, that was the hottest part of the building. That area was just, smells of burnt grease mostly. The roof was coming in on one end, so it wasn’t a safe structure at all, but in areas like this when jobs are hard to come by, you have to go to work in unsafe conditions just to feed your family. So the majority of us, we want to work, at least that was my reason for going there. I wanted a job. I wanted to support my children on my own, had two kids at the time. So I wanted to be able to show them that hard work paid off and we could have something of our own.

Charlie: The ability, like Annette says, to have something for your own, like a house or a car, has looked different for people in Hamlet in the past. Before Imperial came to town in 1980, Hamlet was known for one thing: the railroad.

Bryant: Hamlet had been the center of several major rail lines in the South, and it had developed around the railroad station, literally and symbolically, the center of the town was this quite beautiful Victorian train depot. Radiating out from that in a sense were all the things that happened from the railroad.

Charlie: This is historian Bryant Simon. A few year ago, he published a book called The Hamlet Fire. Simon says Hamlet’s success as a railroad town gave its residents a good deal of economic freedom.

Bryant: In Hamlet, officials even bragged that they were the leading center of backyard swimming pools in the South, and the brag was that the railroad had allowed working class men to move into the middle class, and what begins to happen in the late 1950s and kind of slowly into the 1970s, is the railroad industry collapses.

Charlie: Meanwhile, as the railroad industry disappeared in Hamlet, up in Pennsylvania, two men, Emmett Roe and his son Brad were running a chicken processing plant, but things weren’t going great. Their plant was far from their chicken supplier, and they were frustrated by Pennsylvania’s labor regulations.

Bryant: And so, they’re facing their own kind of crisis of profitability, and they begin to look to move. When they begin to look to move, the owner of the company sees an ad for a shuddered ice cream plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, and surely he does what anybody in his position would do, he does a profile of the place. And the things that mattered to him were rates of unemployment, kind of wage rates, really vulnerability, and what he found was maybe the perfect place for a business. A place in which jobs had collapsed, in which primary industries had fallen apart and which there was a surplus of labor. And so what’s important about this system, this system of cheap that’s in place there, is the government, and its lack of involvement is a crucial dynamic here. And in fact, something that the state of North Carolina advertises to potential investor, I mean slyly, they essentially say, look, you can come here and run your plant the way you want to.

Charlie: So once in Hamlet, the Roes were able to operate the Imperial plant with little to no oversight. Simon says Imperial wasn’t the only business that was enticed by this. By 1990, North Carolina was the most industrial state per capita in the country.

Bryant: And so it has a 180,000 work places in 1990, and it has somewhere in the neighborhood of between 35 and 45 factory plant inspectors. So if you break that down, if they did their job and they inspected one factory a day, every day, five days a week, it would have taken them somewhere between 67 and 72 years to inspect every plant in the state.

Charlie: That meant the Roes could violate almost any safety rule and never get caught. So equipment didn’t have to be up to code, and doors could stay padlocked from the outside.

Bryant: The owners, Brad and Emmett Roe, locked the factory doors to stop their employees from stealing chickens. That wasn’t the true story, but it has importance to it. The real story is that the back of the plant where the main door was locked was a place where workers would go out to throw boxes away, and they would go out to maybe get a smoke, but what was happening is, because there was so much traffic out that back door, flies were coming into the factory. And the flies immediately went to the meat, and the officials from the USDA were hounding the Roes in the spring and summer of 1991 about these flies. And one of the maintenance men for the Roes suggested, well, why don’t we just lock the door then no one can go out and the flies can’t come in, and the USDA said, “That’s fine.”

Annette: There was no proof that anyone was stealing chicken, but that was the allegation. Was it worth lives lost to lock those doors over the allegation of some stolen chicken?

Charlie: On September 3, 1991, Annette came into work early. Along with the rest of the workers, she had just enjoyed a day off from Labor Day, and she says, like always, she started work that day with her two good friends Brenda and Margaret.

Annette: We’d always clock in together, and we went in early, and we played around that morning. We pulled each other’s and smocks, and you had these plastic aprons to wear. We kept tearing our aprons. Just playing and talking about our Labor Day weekend, and we usually always worked together, and we got separated that morning. By 8:30, we heard women screaming, and there’s this big, thick partition that separated the frying room from the thigh room. So when I opened it, all you saw was this big, black smoke and women running, and somebody yelled fire, and then the lights started flickering, so we knew it was something serious then. It was too black, you couldn’t see. And then the power went out, and I had fallen. That’s when I got stepped on. I don’t know how long I was on the floor, but I remember making it to the area where the freezer was, where the door that we tried to get out of, and 20, maybe 25 of us ended up in that little area pressed up against the door.

Annette: And a guy, Bernard Campbell, he squeezed through where somebody tore the siding, and he got through the hole to go get somebody with a key. He hurt his back that particular day, but he got out and got the key. I passed out before they opened the door. I remember seeing the door come open ’cause I saw the sunlight, and I remember them telling us to back up because they had to push the door in, but we were pressed up against the door. By the time they got it opened, the first two ladies in the front had died. That was Miss Peggy Anderson was one of those ladies that had died at the front. They said she was smoke inhalation and she had a heart attack from being crushed against all the people pressing against her. And I almost ended up in the freezer with a couple of other people, ’cause that’s what they said, go in the freezer, close the door and you could be able to breathe.

Bryant: A group of workers get to that loading dock, and they realize the doors were locked, and so they scurry into a cooler, thinking that the cooler will protect them from the flames not knowing that what will kill them was carbon monoxide. What they also didn’t know and a kind of brutal irony was that that was one of the doors that actually didn’t close right. It had not been fixed, so it didn’t close tight, so they basically were in this chamber as carbon monoxide seeped into it, and 12 people died in there.

Annette: I came to again. I was outside on the ground beside Miss Cleo Reddick and they were giving me oxygen. I gave her my oxygen mask and got up, and I woke up again, I was in the rescue squad. So, I don’t know how much time had passed between beginning of the fire and the time I got to the hospital. I don’t know.

Charlie: The fire was caused by a hydraulic line that powered a conveyor belt. This belt took battered chicken tenders up a ramp and dumped them into a fryer. But the hydraulic line kept causing problems.

Bryant: The maintenance crew got their early that morning, and they hooked up a new hydraulic line with the wrong parts. They didn’t have the right parts because the owner of the plant, Brad Roe, refused to pay for the right parts.

Charlie: So when the line turned on, a disconnected hose spewed flammable hydraulic fluid. This ignited the flames from the fryer and caused an explosion that cut the factory in half. Twenty-five people died from the flames and toxic smoke that consumed the plant. After the fire, Imperial went bankrupt. Emmett Roe, his son Brad, and plant manager James Hair were indicted on 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Emmett Roe pled guilty for all of them, and got an 18 year prison sentence. He only served four and a half.

Charlie: Annette has battled health problems ever since. She’s had multiple surgeries for her neck, knee, and back. She’s been diagnosed with asthma and lung disease from smoke inhalation. She says many of the workers had to go through a long process to receive compensation for their injuries, and some of them even had to pay a portion of that back. In addition to her health, Annette has also dealt with the haunting memory of the fire. A trauma she spent decades coping with.

Annette: It’s much better now than it had been. We had years of therapy, but it’s been my faith and being active in church that has helped more than anything. If I didn’t have church, if I didn’t have God, I know I wouldn’t be here. I’ve had those suicidal moments in regards to that. I felt guilty for years because Brenda and Margaret both died. I felt guilty because we were the Three Musketeers, what happened to one happened to all three of us. All for one, one for all, and I wasn’t there. I wasn’t with them when they died. I don’t know yet. Nobody would ever tell me where they were found at, but I find in comfort in believing that whichever area they died in, they were together.

Charlie: Annette says for years she couldn’t drive past the burned down building, and when she did, she’d often experience anxiety attacks or sit in her car in a trance, mesmerized by the discarded remains. For 10 years, the Imperial plant stayed up in Hamlet as a scar of the tragedy.

Annette: Thinking it was a lack of concern for people and more of a concern for profit. They could have got more profit out of it, I think they would have.

Bryant: The plant was in the Black part of town, and that meant if you went to school, you had to pass the plant. If you went to the Piggly Wiggly, the only supermarket in town, you had to pass the plant. If you went to some churches, you had to pass the plant. If you wanted to go to Main Street, you had to pass the plant. It was a form of terror essentially, and the town wouldn’t take it down because it wouldn’t spend the money to do so. Why? They were hoping that another industrial concern would locate there, because how could the town function without the revenues generated by taxes from that plant?

Charlie: The building stayed hollow and dilapidated until former workers and other community members petitioned city officials to tear it down. Today, a memorial is in place at the old site, which sits right around the corner from Annette’s church.

Annette: Yes, it’s walking distance. Walking … It’s not even a minute drive. Yeah, we can actually go there if you like.

Annette: This, that little path there, that is actually the spot that led to the loading dock where the truck was parked there and the door was locked. This here would have been the break room area.

Charlie: At the memorial park, I also spoke with Willie Baldwin, he was a supervisor at Imperial. We talked about what it took to tear down the building, and how the community and politicians outside of Hamlet had to pressure the city.

Willie: It was a hard fought battle. It was that we had to get outside politicians to come in and to help us get this torn down, because it was an eyesore. And then on top of that, it was infested with all type of diseases, and I had kids walking through here. And we don’t see our kids all the time when they leave the house, ’cause some of them could have come up here and got messed up and we never knew nothing about it.

Charlie: Both Annette and Willie say city officials have always been reluctant to address the tragedy, even today, they’re still waiting on an official dedication for the memorial from the city.

Annette: It’s never going to happen.

Willie: It ain’t gonna happen until we start pushing.

Annette: But we shouldn’t have to push for that. Whenever the building was torn down, they said they’d do a memorial park. They said we will officially dedicate it when the trees grew. Trees are grown, and they said, when the trees bloom. They have bloomed a few times.

Willie: Yep.

Annette: But we still have no official dedication.

Charlie: A little bit down the road from the old Imperial site lies another memorial, one the workers put up shortly after the fire. It includes a stone monument with the names of those who died, and a poem written by Annette.

Annette: Silver and gold have we none, just love overflowing for everyone. Once you were here, now you are gone with tears, joy and sorrow, your loving memory lingers on.

Charlie: Bryant Simon says there are eerie similarities between the Hamlet fire and the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City 80 years prior. That fire killed close to 150 people, and like Hamlet, many of the workers couldn’t escape because the doors to the stairs and exits were locked. The Triangle Fire brought national attention to dangerous sweatshop conditions, which led to stricter labor laws and more federal regulations. And Simon says that’s where Triangle and Imperial start to look different.

Bryant: Triangle created a kind of fundamental rethinking of the role of government, and in the wake of Hamlet, that didn’t happen, and again, I think that’s the way in which this system of cheap creates a logic that is hard to get out of. What’s the answer to cheap? It’s not more government, it’s more industry that will create more jobs, and that essentially was the state of North Carolina’s response, and if anything, it’s become increasingly the response of other states around the country. As we have this sort of fiction of state lines, right, in this country that forces competition for dwindling opportunities. In a sense, we’ve redefined the function of government not into protecting people but into being some sort of engine for job creation. With just don’t care about what the jobs are, what the costs are on the backend, and there’s nobody really. I don’t know who’s out there who’s really challenging that kind of broader logic.

Annette: I want to know if it was worth it. That would be my question to them. If the 25 lives lost that day and those that have died from their injuries since then, what was it worth it? Was it worth the profit that they made from the business that they ran, and to run it the way they did, and if they could do something different, would they have? Would that have actually changed them? Was it worth locking the doors?

Nathan: That was producer Charlie Shelton-Ormond with the story. Special thanks to Annette Pierce Zimmerman, Willie Baldwin, and Bryant Simon. Simon’s book is The Hamlet Fire, a Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives.