Local News

Hazards impede probe into Garner plant explosion

Posted June 12, 2009 12:15 p.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2009 8:26 p.m. EDT

— As investigators begin trying to determine the cause of an explosion at a Garner food plant, the family of one of three people killed in the blast said Friday that the company should have done more to protect the workers.

About 300 employees were in the ConAgra Foods plant at the time of the Tuesday morning explosion, which blew out a wall and punched holes in the roof, sparked small fires and ruptured the plant's ammonia lines.

Dozens of workers and contractors were injured, and three workers were killed, including Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn.

Spears' brother, Anthony McLean, said ConAgra could have taken steps to prevent the incident.

"They are going to be held accountable for the things that have taken place with these untimely deaths," McLean said.

Investigators were finally able to enter the heavily damaged plant Friday to begin searching for the cause of the blast, but McLean said the cause is irrelevant.

"It doesn't make any difference as to what caused it, because what caused it obviously has caused our families to be without our loved ones," he said.

Phil Durham, agent-in-charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Response Team, said investigators began working their way – north to south – through the 425,000-square-foot plant on Jones Sausage Road.

Investigators haven't been able to access a center portion of the south end of the plant because heavy concrete beams are dangling overhead, supported only by conduit, Durham said.

"It's very hazardous for our folks, so we're not able to get to the actual scene (of the explosion) at this time," he said. "The structure itself is going to drive how fast we can proceed. Safety for everyone is our main concern."

Engineers from ConAgra and the ATF were working on a plan to shore up that section of the plant for investigators, he said. Cranes and heavy equipment parked outside the plant probably would be used, he said.

"We know where the structural issues are. (The problem is) coming up with a plan to attack the dangerous parts," he said.

ATF agents, along with representatives of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the state Department of Labor and the State Bureau of Investigation also interviewed more than 150 ConAgra workers on Friday to get their eyewitness accounts of the blast.

"Most of the individuals don't know what happened," Durham said. "They felt or heard an explosion of some type and then tried to get out of the building."

Sharon Palmer, a contract worker in the maintenance parts room inside the plant, said she tried to be as helpful as possible in recalling the explosion for investigators.

"(There was) lots of noise – very loud noise. (I remember) being scared and making sure my co-workers were getting out of our area," Palmer said. "Getting all of us in there, from different perspectives, I'm certain, will help them pinpoint where it started and how."

Workers recovering, remembered

McLean said he first heard of the explosion through a text message from a friend. He and his brother rushed to the plant, then to the Garner Senior Center and finally to WakeMed in search of their sister, but they couldn't find her.

"I knew at that time that my sister was probably still trapped in the building, and I started preparing myself for the worst at that time," he said.

Four ConAgra workers remained in critical condition Friday 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.

McLean said his thoughts and prayers are now with the injured workers.

"I would much rather for her to be dead and gone on than to have to go through all that pain," he said.

Funerals have been scheduled for Spears and the other two victims: Rachel Mae Poston Pulley, 67, and Louis Junior Watson, 33, both of Clayton.

Spears' funeral will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at Cape Fear Regional Center in Erwin. Pulley's will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at Springfield Baptist Church in Raleigh. Watson's will be at 11 a.m. Monday in the Johnston Community College auditorium.

About 400 people attended a public candlelight vigil Friday night at Wake Baptist Grove Church, at 302 E Main St. in Garner. Clergy from several area churches were in attendance to honor the fallen and injured ConAgra employees.

The Town of Garner plans a moment of silence on Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. in memory of the victims of the plant explosion. The one-minute long tribute will also be observed at ConAgra Foods locations across the nation.

Mayor Ronnie Williams will also lead an observance at Lake Benson Park Amphitheater at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, Garner officials said.

"My sister is going to be greatly missed," McLean said. "I won't get that beautiful smile that she has anymore."

He said he was upset that no one from ConAgra, aside from his sister's supervisor, had contacted the family in the days after her death.

"(The plant manager) hasn't made any type of effort to reach out and touch – not my family, not at all," he 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 by Thursday afternoon.

The company also distributed bags of groceries Friday afternoon to plant workers outside a Vandora Springs Road shopping center.

"I'm thankful for everything they're doing and proud of how they're handling the situation," worker Marzelle Burgess said.