Local News

Memorial Park For Victims Of N.C. Chicken Plant Fire Dedicated

Posted April 24, 2003 5:30 a.m. EDT

— As politicians made speeches dedicating a memorial park to 25 people killed in a chicken plant fire, one survivor in the audience Thursday couldn't block out the memories of that gruesome day in 1991.

"You could hear the people screaming and hollering," said Ada Blanchard, 51.

Blanchard was working inside the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant when the fire broke out Sept. 3, 1991. The fire began when a hydraulic line broke near a deep-fat fryer and fireballs blew through the brick building.

Many workers who tried to escape the smoke and flames could not get out because exits were locked or blocked. In all, 25 people died and 56 were injured in the fire, which occurred the day after Labor Day.

The fire served as a catalyst for improved workplace safety laws in North Carolina.

Blanchard sat under a green-and-white striped tent with a cotton sweater around her shoulders to ward off the breeze as she listened to speeches from local leaders at the dedication ceremony.

She walked into the sunshine to grab a chrome-plated shovel to participate in the ground-breaking for the memorial park, located at the site of the former plant, which was torn down in 2001. The park will consist of 25 stepping stones to represent each person killed.

It also has a granite slab with a plaque that includes information about the fire, including that 49 children were orphaned.

Blanchard recalled the events of that day when she was working in a room beside the ignition point. She said a dark ball of smoke followed a bright blast of flame when the fire started in the windowless plant. Workers ran for the exits, only to find most of them locked or blocked.

She tried to escape through a loading dock door blocked by a dumpster.

"When the door was finally opened, somebody pulled me out," she said.

"We were praying to get out. It was a scary experience, but spiritual. I could see Jesus' name come up from my forehead and then the letters turned into musical notes. I said, 'Lord, I'm committing my life to you. I accept death,"' she said.

The park is being built as part of a $1.75 million revitalization project in the small town near the South Carolina border. The revitalization also includes low-income housing.