Anniversary of Imperial Foods fire in Hamlet

By Kevin Spradlin

“Special prayers,” wrote one reader, “for the people that still see this day like it was yesterday.”

Today is the 23rd anniversary of the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant fire in Hamlet. The blaze claimed 25 lives and injured 56 others with severe burns, blindness, respiratory disease and more. Lawrence Naumoff published a book in 2005, entitled “A Southern Tragedy, in Crimson and Yellow” and in 2012, Robert Cotter and Maureen Costello produced a 22-minute film that revealed the inside story of the fire.

The lessons learned from the Sept. 3, 1991 tragedy at the one-story brick and metal building are many. The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a report that focused on such lessons. From the 23-year-old event came a slew of new rules and regulations.

* Life safety codes must be enforced;
* Cooking areas must be separately partitioned from other employee work areas;
* Building exits in wet type operations should have double emergency lighting, one positioned above the door and one low to the floor;
* High pressure equipment maintenance and repairs must be limited to factory trained personnel and specifications;
* High pressure equipment in probable incident areas should have built-in catastrophic shut down valves;
* Negative air flow systems in these facilities could enhance safety by being modified to also accomplish smoke evacuation;
* State and federal inspectors from various departments should be cross-trained;
* Establish a “worry free” line of communications for industry employees;
* The number of OSHA safety inspectors must be increased;
* Emergency exit drills must be incorporated into industry policies.

The FEMA report shows that the Hamlet facility employed about 200 people, with about 90 people working on an average shift.

The fire began in the processing room, centrally located in the 30,000-square-foot plant. A rigged hydraulic line had broken at the point of the makeshift repair, and droplets of hydraulic fluid “began to splatter,” according to the report — right into the gas heating plumbs for the cooking vat.

“The vapors then were going directly into the flame,” the report noted. “The vapors had a much lower flashpoint than the liquid hydraulic fluid and therefore rapidly ignited. In sum, the pressurization of the hydraulic fluid combined with the heat was causing an atomizing of the fuel which in all probability caused an immediate fireball in and around the failed hydraulic line and the heating plumbs. The ignition of the fuel caused an immediate and very rapid spreading of heavy black smoke throughout the building.”

The investigation concluded that seven workers were trapped between the area of origin and any escapable routes. Though a post-fire measurement showed between 50 and 55 gallons of hydraulic fluid fueled the fire — about half as much as normal — the problem was compounded when the flames reached a natural gas regulator that failed “and caused an induction of natural gas to the fire increasing the intensity and buildup of toxic gases.”

Witness reports, according to the FEMA investigation, indicated that much of the plant was involved within two minutes. Efforts to escape the blaze were hindered by confusion.

Where were you on Sept. 3, 1991? How did you react/respond to the situation? Join the conversation on The Pee Dee Post’s Facebook page or comment below.



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  • Frankie Moree

    I was working at Rockingham Fire Dept, I was actively fighting fire at Imperial Foods that day. Very long and tragic day.

  • Gloria

    I was working in Laurel Hill that day, but my son was on the streets of Hamlet asking police, fireman, and emergency personnel “Have you seen Mike Albright?” He met Mike’s dad and they asked each other the same question “Have you seen Mike”. Early afternoon they both learned Mike did not make it out alive. A father grieved for his son, and my son grieved for his best friend of over 20 years. They had met in Sunday school when they were 5 years old. Mike had left my sons house the night before at 10:00pm, and my son was going to pick him up after work that day at 4:00pm.
    Rest in Peace, David Michael Albright. You have not been forgotten

    • AMH

      Thank you for this memory/ thought.

  • Sheila Quinn

    I was in my office with the NC Division of Social Services in Fayetteville. My supervisor assigned me to go to Hamlet to help set up an emergency center to serve the survivors of the fire. We went that afternoon and started preparations to set up at the Hamlet library.

  • Mary Tyler

    I was at my mother’s house taking care of our two-week old son in Derby. I will never forget my mother calling me that morning asking if I had heard from Don. She started telling me that she had heard on the radio that the place he had just started working four days earlier, in maintenance, was on fire! I recall the feeling, that I will never forget as long as there’s breath in my body, of absolute dispair!

    I don’t remember how my newborn baby and myself got to Hamlet because I was delirious! My mom met me there and we looked every where but couldn’t find him. I will never forget this tall, slender man approached me and told me that my husband had made it out!!! He actually saw him and when he saw us standing near Don’s truck he told me again I know that was your husband because he remembered him going to the truck and then walking back towards the building. He said your husband is the new guy on maintenance with the blond hair. I said yes that’s my husband! I was so excited knowing he was out of the plant but for hours no one could find him.

    The gentleman said he would continue to look for him and bring him to us when he found him. Needless to say he came back but without my husband. I will never forget his words, “ma’am your husband made it out but others say he went back in to try and help”. The man he was I knew it was true! We spent hours on end asking if anyone had seen him come back out and no answers. We were advised to start checking the local hospitals still no answers and at this point and time the anxiety and worry had got the best of me. The chaplain at Hamlet Hospital advised my family to take me home and they would continue to search for him. Around 9:30 or so that night my mom received a phone call and they told her they found my husband but he was deceased.

    I don’t remember much after that point other than my first true love and husband of six years was gone and our two week old baby boy would never know his daddy.

    We moved back to N.C. because he felt it was where we needed to raise our son and who would have ever imagined taking a job making $14 an hour would end his life. All because of greed! What kind of person chains up fire exits???? This I will never understand nor will I forget!

    So here I am 23 years later still trying to figure out why. I look at our son, now 23 years old, that never had the chance to know his daddy. I thank a God for memories, pictures, and family whom continue to share their stories to my son about his daddy that’s in Heaven!

    May The Lord bless all those that lost a loved one on that tragic day and those that survived but are living in constant agony!

    Twenty-three years later and we are still healing! Rest in Peace my Love, Donald Bruce Rich! You may not grace us with your prescence but your love remains always!

    • Mark

      My heart is literally breaking as I am reading this. I was in my junior year of high school when this happened, and I will never forget a classmate crying her poor heart out as they were escorting her out after breaking the horrible news to her. Knowing how little has changed makes me sick to my stomach. I can only pray for healing, because I cannot imagine the depths of such personal tragedy.

  • Sgt. Bob Steele

    I was the day shift road Sgt. for Hamlet P.D. and the first uniformed officer on the scene that morning. After a short while I noticed a volunteer fireman and a future Hamlet officer standing over one of the victims on the ground and he was really losing it. I pulled him to the side and told him he had to get it together we needed his help. He broke down, fell to his knees and told me it was his mom. I can’t put into words what it did to me.

    • Sgt. Bob Steele

      correction he was a rescue volunteer, not a fireman

  • disqus_ZBc5CQd4k5

    I was the lead hyd. mech. at Imperial Foods and I quit and walked out 11 days before the third and final explosion that started the fire that killed so many of the employees. Emmett Roe (the plant owner) was well aware of the pressure problems on the # 1 Fryer and refused to take action on the proper repairs. After the second explosion I quit and walked out. I was interviewed by the S.B.I. Agent in charge of the investigation and was never contacted again. The book about this tragedy never mentioned the Hamlet City Mayors involvement with Imperial Foods and I reported to the SBI that I witnessed the U.S.D.A. Inspector taking envelopes filled with cash while I was in the office. The book about this tragedy was complete propaganda.

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