Garner, N.C. — Authorities on Wednesday afternoon removed two more bodies from the rubble of a Garner food plant following a Tuesday explosion.
Police identified the victims pulled from the ConAgra Foods plant as Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn; Rachel Mae Poston-Pulley, 67, of Clayton; and Louis Junior Watson, 33, of Clayton.
Sgt. Chris Clayton of the Garner Police Department said search crews are working to remove a beam that landed on several cars outside the plant to search them. They have already used a remote camera to examine the vehicles, but they want to physically inspect the vehicles to ensure no other victims are inside, he said.
Teams from North Carolina Task Force 8 Urban Search and Rescue planned to comb through the plant one final time before investigators move in to begin trying to determine the cause of the blast, Clayton said.
"Right now, we don't have any reason to believe anyone else is in (the plant)," he said.
The search teams removed debris and shored up damaged walls to get through the roof to one body and crawled through tight spaces to reach the other, Task Force 8 Battalion Chief Frank McLaurin said.
Four ConAgra workers remained in critical condition Thursday in the North Carolina Jaycees Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, said Dr. Bruce Cairns. One worker was in fair condition, and two were in good condition at the burn center, he said.
Eleven workers were in WakeMed in Raleigh on Wednesday, another was in WakeMed Cary and a 13th was in Rex Hospital, according to hospital spokeswomen.
ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs choked back tears Wednesday morning when she talked of the workers who were killed or injured in the explosion.
"Our thoughts and our prayers are with those employees and their families," Childs said.
A public candlelight vigil to remember the victims is planned for 8 p.m. Friday at Wake Baptist Grove Church at 302 E Main St. in Garner. Clergy from several are churches will be in attendance.
ConAgra has set up a toll-free hotline for employees and relatives to get updates at 1-866-484-9599.
Family members of the Jaycee Burn Center patients can call 919-966-5006 for information, family members of WakeMed patients can call 919-350-5105 and family members of Rex patients can call 919-784-1525.
Investigation ramps up
A team of 25 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived in Garner late Wednesday to assist the Wake County Fire Marshal in investigating the cause of the explosion, Clayton said.
“It’s extremely hard for me to imagine the panic, the desire to live, and the terror that the good citizens of Wake County went through immediately after that explosion and fire,” ATF agent Earl Woodham said.
Inspectors from the state Department of Labor and agents with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board will also be assisting in the probe.
“Our basic mission is prevention, determine root causes of an accident, draw lessons learned from the accident, and make recommendations out to whoever we need to,” CSB member William Wark said.
ConAgra Chief Executive Gary Rodkin and other executives arrived in Garner on Wednesday afternoon to speak with employees and their families and to help with the investigation.
"Our goal is to make sure nothing like this ever happens again," Rodkin said.
"The accident (Tuesday) is devastating for ConAgra Foods and for me personally," he said. "There is no worse nightmare for a CEO. What happened here to our family – our employees – is very difficult to bear."
ConAgra has established a fund to assist Garner employees, he said. The company contributed $100,000 to the fund and is asking workers at its other plants to donate as well.
Childs said the company would continue paying workers "while this situation is under way." It's too early to determine when the plant might reopen, she said.
ConAgra has a plant in Holly Ridge that makes frozen foods, but officials haven't determined whether Garner employees would be offered jobs there until the local plant can reopen, spokesman Dave Jackson said.
"Our hope is to rebuild," Rodkin said. "Obviously, there are many challenges."
Some employee cars were towed from the Garner plant's parking lots Wednesday, and Childs said they would be stored at a secure location until employees could pick them up.
Jones Sausage Road, which had been closed since the explosion, reopened early Thursday.
Explosion rocked plant
About 300 workers were in the plant at 4851 Jones Sausage Road when the explosion occurred shortly before 11:30 a.m. Many suffered from exposure to toxic fumes from ammonia leaks and some also suffered severe burns, authorities said.
The 425,000-square-foot plant, which was formerly owned by Raleigh-based GoodMark Foods, makes and packages Slim Jim beef jerky products.
"We just heard a loud explosion, and we looked up and the door to our department blew off and debris and everything rushed in," said worker Janet Bryant, who was uninjured in the explosion.
Childs said an initial investigation determined that the explosion occurred in the packaging section of the plant.
"I'm like the general public. I want some closure. We need to find out what started it," Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said.
Twenty people were immediately taken to area hospitals for treatment, and another 18 were transported later with minor injuries, including heat exhaustion, authorities said. Three firefighters who had inhaled ammonia fumes also were taken to a hospital for treatment.
"It blew me, knocked me back into the wall," said worker Harold Harris, who was taken to WakeMed for treatment. "When I kind of gathered myself, the lights went out, but I could see the roof just falling all around me."
Rodkin said he was impressed with the attitude of employees he met with Wednesday.
"I was amazingly impressed with the level of composure and dignity that I saw," he said. "Obviously, they're hurting tremendously."
The blast caved in parts of the roof, sparked fires and caused an ammonia leak. The fires and chemical leak hampered initial rescue and recovery efforts.
Clayton, of the Garner Police Department, said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspectors were in Garner Wednesday to ensure no contamination spread from the plant. A contractor that handles hazardous materials was going to come to clear the ammonia refrigerant out of the plant, he said.
Weekend incident unrelated
Police said a weekend threat against the ConAgra plant was unrelated to Tuesday's explosion.
Someone called the plant at 10 p.m. Saturday and threatened to set fire to the building, according to a police report. Firefighters responded to a fire alarm at the plant a short time later, according to the report.
ConAgra officials said Tuesday that they didn't see any connection between the phone call and the explosion, and Garner police on Wednesday agreed with that assessment.
"There is just no reason to believe whatsoever the Saturday incident and what happened (Tuesday) are related at all," Clayton said.