Local News

Attorney says documents point to contractor in ConAgra blast

Posted June 17, 2009 4:29 p.m. EDT
Updated March 29, 2010 1:38 a.m. EDT

— David Stradley, a Raleigh lawyer representing two ConAgra Foods plant workers, said Wednesday that new evidence implicates Southern Industrial Constructors Inc. in a fatal explosion in the Garner plant.

Stradley said that he found permits at the Garner building inspector's office showing work on a natural gas line by Southern Industrial. The line, he said, leads to the area where the June 9 explosion happened.

Stradley also said the paperwork makes note of gas to a new water heater.

"(The document) seems to indicate that this work was only permitted eight days before the explosion,” Stradley said.

Investigators have determined that a natural gas leak caused the explosion at the 425,000-square-foot Jones Sausage Road plant. Three workers were killed, and dozens more were injured.

Four workers burned in the explosion remained in critical condition in the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill Wednesday. A fifth worker was in fair condition, and a sixth was in good condition. The hospital earlier erroneously reported improvement in the condition of some patients.

Stradley said the documents he found show there was work being done by Southern Industrial in pump room No. 2. The room houses vacuum pumps for sealing the snacks, and gas inside it was ignited when one of the electrical components in the room was started, according to ATF agent Phil Durham said.

“(By) talking to a number of employees who noticed an odor of gas and tracing in the lines, we found where some lines had been worked on,” Durham said.

However, Durham also said he was not sure when work to the gas lines was done or who did the labor.

Rod Pettey, an attorney for Southern Industrial, said Wednesday that four company employees were working at the ConAgra plant the day of the explosion. Two were in another area of the plant, a third was outside the building, and a fourth was at a wastewater facility some distance away from the plant, he said.

"None of these employees were near the pump room where the explosion occurred, and none were working on gas lines or water heaters," Pettey said in a statement.

When asked specifically about the permits Stradley found, Pettey said he is aware of them. He said that he will be able to prove that Southern Industrial was not doing work in pump room No. 2 or with water heaters.
Federal and state agencies, meanwhile, were continuing their investigation into the cause of the gas leak and how it sparked the explosion.

Members of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and inspectors with the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health were reviewing employee training records and examining equipment.

They planned to hold a news conference at 2 p.m. Thursday at Embassy Suites near Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh to update the public about the investigation.

"It was a very sobering sight to see the impact of that explosion. It was a significant explosion and certainly a terrible tragedy for the people involved,” said CSB chairman John Bresland.

Bresland said that it is still too dangerous to get near where the blast occurred and that it could be a year before future safety recommendations are released.