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Workers sue contractor over plant explosion

Two ConAgra Foods workers filed suit Monday against a mechanical contractor, blaming the company for a fatal plant explosion last week.

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. — Two ConAgra Foods workers injured in a plant explosion last week filed suit Monday against a mechanical contractor, blaming the company for the accident.

Leonard Spruill of Selma and Tammie O'Neal of Zebulon are seeking unspecified damages in the suit against Southern Industrial Constructors Inc.

"The one way we can be sure we will be able to preserve the evidence that is there is by filing a lawsuit,” said David Stradley, a Raleigh lawyer representing Spruill and O'Neal.

Southern Industrial, a Raleigh-based mechanical contractor was installing equipment in ConAgra's plant in Garner, and crews either used natural gas in the installation or the equipment was fueled by natural gas, according to the lawsuit.

"It looks like they were installing some sort of custom industrial hot-water heater at the time (of the blast),” Stradley said.

The suit alleges that the contractor's crews either installed the equipment incorrectly or damaged the gas lines, allowing gas to leak into the plant.

"You don't have a natural gas explosion without something going wrong," Stradley said.

Investigators have determined that a natural gas leak sparked an explosion last Tuesday that blew out a wall of the 425,000-square-foot plant and punched holes in the roof. Three workers were killed, and dozens of others were burned or injured by falling debris.

Southern Industrial President John Wilson said the company had five employees working under the supervision of ConAgra's maintenance department. Although Stradley said building permits indicated Southern Industrial employees were installing natural gas-fired water heaters, Wilson said: "We've never installed a water heater at ConAgra."

"We believe it's all fabricated, at least in terms of our involvement," Wilson told The Associated Press.

Inspectors have reviewed Southern Industrial's operations seven times over the last 20 years and have cited the company three times for violations.

In 2005, the company was cited twice for not having personal protective equipment and was fined $875. The preceding year, a $2,250 fine was issued for a violation dealing with cranes. In 2002, inspectors found two violations dealing with rigging equipment at a state port and issued a $688 fine.

Southern Industrial boasts on its Web site that it has had no on-the-job fatalities during the past five years and that it has also won regional safety awards.

Spruill suffered burns on his head, arms and hands in the explosion, while O'Neal suffered injuries to her head, back and leg, according to the suit.

O'Neal is out of the hospital but still using crutches. Spruill is still being treated for burns at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.



Adam Owens, Reporter
Mark Simpson, Photographer
Matthew Burns, Web Editor
Minnie Bridgers, Web Editor

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