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Site of NC's Deadliest Workplace Accident to be Destroyed

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HAMLET — A constant reminder of the deadliest workplace accident in North Carolina history is set to be destroyed.

From the outside, it looks like an abandoned plant. But, for the people in the Richmond County town of Hamlet, it is where 25 of their friends, relatives and co-workers died in the 1991 fire.

The Imperial Foods chicken plant caught fire on the morning of September 3, 1991. In addition to the 25 deaths, 56 people were injured as they tried to escape.

Many of the victims could not get out of the building because the doors were padlocked.

The town welcomed Thursday's news that Congress has appropriated money to tear down the plant.

Chunaitha McRae has haunting memories of the tragedy. She worked second shift, and lost some of her friends who were working first shift when the fire broke out.

"I had a friend, Jeff, who saved two lives," McRae said. "He was running back in, trying to save people, and he died during that time -- trying to save lives."

Nicholas Moore's aunt died in the fire. He does not want to see the burned-out shell anymore.

"It's kind of hard to come by here, knowing my aunt died here," he said. "I think they really need to get rid of this place."

Lee Matthews, Hamlet's city manager, agrees. But he says legal problems with the plant's former owners and the cost of demolition have delayed the town from taking action.

"It's an eyesore, a stigma on the community," he said.

Since the fire, Imperial Foods has been under the control of bankruptcy court. But a 1999 ruling has cleared the way for officials to demolish the plant.

Matthews said Congress has appropriated $50,000 for demolition, but a contractor wants $65,000. Matthews believes the town will find the money to make up the difference.

For McRae, the plant's disappearance will not come soon enough.

"You have a lot of kids that lost their parents, and a lot of them that live around here," McRae said. "They constantly come through here and see this, and it constantly brings back those memories."

Town leaders and residents already have suggestions about the property's use. They have recommended the site be turned into a memorial park with a walking trail that tells the story of the fire, or a business development.

The tragedy has resulted in several lawsuits and also criminal charges.

Emmett Roe, the owner of Imperial Foods, pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Roe has been released from prison. A state investigation found that he supervised the installation of padlocks on the doors.

One of those padlocked steel doors, stamped with the sooty footprints of people who were trying to escape, now sits in the Smithsonian Institution.


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