Local News

ConAgra employees return to plant

Posted June 11, 2009 9:21 p.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2009 9:29 a.m. EDT

— The last time Harold Harris was at the ConAgra Foods plant in Garner, he was running for his life.

“It’s been a journey,” Harris said as he returned to the plant on Thursday.

It was the first time Harris and other employees went to the plant on Jones Sausage Road since an explosion on Tuesday blew out part of a wall and punched holes in the roof. The blast sparked several small fires and ruptured ammonia lines in the plant.

Harris, 40, said an "overwhelming boom" knocked him down in the plant.

"It blew me, knocked me back into the wall," Harris said. "When I kind of gathered myself, the lights went out, but I could see the roof just falling all around me."

Harris crawled through a small hole in the wall and reached safety. He was treated for burns on his head, arms and legs.

After being treated at WakeMed, Harris said he found himself compelled to just see the plant again.

The plant has become a gathering place for employees. A steady stream of workers arrived on Thursday to share their stories and deal with the events of this week.

“I could have very easily been gone today,” Harris said.

ConAgra mechanics Josh Wagner and B.J. Sears laid a wreath outside the plant Thursday to remember his colleagues who were killed and injured.

Search teams pulled the bodies of Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn; Rachel Mae Poston-Pulley, 67, of Clayton; and Louis Junior Watson, 33, of Clayton, from the rubble Wednesday.

"We love them and hate to see that they're not here," Wagner said. "We're all a family. ... We're here just as much as we're home, so it's our second home."

About 300 employees were in the plant at the time of the explosion, and dozens of workers and contractors were injured.

While employees remembered, local, state and federal agents on Thursday began examining the mangled remains of the plant to try to determine the cause of the explosion.

Members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Response Team surveyed the exterior of the plant, photographing the damage and taking notes to document the condition of the building. They also interviewed employees who were in the plant at the time of the explosion to get their accounts of the incident.

The 25 members of the team include explosives experts, forensic scientists, chemists and electrical engineers.

"At this point, we have no idea what has happened in there," said Phil Durham, the National Response Team's agent-in-charge.

 "We won't let anyone in there until it's safe," Durham said. "We don't want anyone else to get injured in this process."

Search teams from North Carolina Task Force 8 Urban Search and Rescue tried to shore up walls and sections of the roof late Tuesday and Wednesday while searching for and recovering the bodies of the three workers killed in the blast.

Investigators want to disturb as little of the plant as possible to get the most accurate picture of the damage, Durham said. But cranes and heavy equipment will be used to brace walls and the roof as needed so investigators can move freely through the building, he said.

"It's very, very important to keep the (building's) integrity as is," he said. "We want to look at the actual blast effects."

The ATF team considers the plant a crime scene until investigators can rule the explosion an accident, Durham said.

Investigators plan to continue interviewing ConAgra employees Friday morning and afternoon at Garner United Methodist Church. Durham called the eyewitness accounts of the explosion valuable to the investigation.

"What they heard or what they felt ... helps us narrow down the actual location of the blast," he said.

Support for workers grows

Four ConAgra workers remained in critical condition Thursday in the North Carolina Jaycees Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Another worker was in fair condition, and two others were in good condition at the burn center.

One of the critically burned patients was identified Thursday as Anthony Elliott, but no other information about him was released.

Some of the patients underwent surgery Thursday, a hospital spokeswoman said. Recovery from extensive burns typically involves several surgeries, rehabilitation and counseling, officials said.

ConAgra has established a fund to assist Garner employees. The company contributed $100,000 to the fund and asked workers at its other plants and Triangle residents to donate as well.

Craig Chancellor, chief executive of the United Way of the Greater Triangle, which is coordinating the fundraising effort, said $10,000 had been donated to the fund in the first day.

"There's a tremendous outpouring from the ConAgra family and the entire community to help the victims," Chancellor said.

ConAgra officials said all workers would continue to be paid for an indefinite period, and the company plans to cover medical and funeral expenses for those workers who were injured or killed.

Childs said the company has loaded a tractor-trailer full of groceries and will distribute bags of food to employees on Friday.

"We want to be able to help them in small ways and big ways," she said.

The company has set up a toll-free hotline for employees and relatives to get updates at 1-866-484-9599.

ConAgra officials said they haven't decided whether to offer Garner workers jobs at other ConAgra plants, and they said it's too early to determine when the Garner plant might reopen.

Employee cars were towed from the plant's parking lots Wednesday to be stored at a secure location until employees could pick them up. Childs said most people had gotten their cars by Thursday afternoon.

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 area churches will be in attendance.