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State regulators investigate 10 firms in blast

State regulators said Friday that they are investigating 10 companies in the probe of a natural gas explosion last week at a Garner food plant that killed three people and injured dozens more.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — State regulators said Friday that they are investigating 10 companies in the probe of a natural gas explosion last week at a Garner food plant that killed three people and injured dozens more.

Meanwhile, a lawyer said he was adding two companies and some of their employees to a lawsuit filed on behalf of workers injured in the June 9 blast at ConAgra Foods.

The state Department of Labor said 10 outside companies had employees at the 425,000-square-foot plant on Jones Sausage Road on the day of the explosion. The department's Division of Occupational Safety and Health has opened inspections on the following firms:

  • ConAgra
  • Coast Personnel Services Inc.
  • Staffing Solutions Southeast Inc., which does business as Resource MFG
  • Aerotek
  • Innovative Talent Services Inc.
  • Accountants International Inc..
  • U.S. Security Associates Inc.
  • Southern Industrial Constructors Inc.
  • Energy System Analysts
  • Freedom Electric

Three inspections were opened for ConAgra, Department of Labor spokesman Neal O'Briant said, one each for health, safety and process safety management. The latter deals with the release of toxic, reactive, flammable or explosive chemicals, he said.

Investigators have determined that a natural gas leak caused the explosion, and they are looking at the possibility that gas from a line leading to a new water heater was vented into a closed space inside the plant as the water heater was being installed.

"I would characterize it as more than human error. I would characterize it as human recklessness," said David Stradley, an attorney representing several injured workers.

Two workers filed suit Monday against Southern Industrial, claiming the mechanical contractor improperly installed the water heater. An attorney for Southern Industrial has said the company's workers weren't working on the water heater and weren't responsible for the explosion.

Stradley has been trying to determine which company flushed the natural gas line.

"At this point, that is somewhat ambiguous," he said. "There has been some indication it was someone who worked for Energy System Analysts, the manufacturer of the water heater."

He has added the Hickory-based company and one of its employees as defendants in the lawsuit. He also has added Jacobs Engineering and one of its employees as defendants.

Officials with Energy System Analysts and Jacobs Engineering couldn't be reached Friday for comment.

California-based Jacobs Engineering drew up the plans for routing the gas line to the water heater and installing the device, Stradley said, and company workers might have supervised the job.

Neither Energy System Analysts or Jacobs Engineering has the contractor's license needed to do the installation work, he said. Southern Industrial did have such a license, he said, which is why he continues to name the company as a defendant in the suit.

"We believe that this places a duty on them to ensure that everything gets hooked up properly," he said. "At this point, we believe we have a strong, good-faith basis to assert liability on the part of each and every person we have named in the lawsuit."

At least two more workers plan to join the lawsuit as plaintiffs, he said.

Four workers remain in critical condition in the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. A fifth worker was in fair condition in the burn unit Friday, and a sixth was in good condition.

Curtis Poppe, an Energy System Analysts employee named as a defendant in the lawsuit, is one of the four critically injured patients in the burn unit, Stradley said.

ConAgra officials said they plan to resume limited production of Slim Jim beef jerky products in the Garner plant in August. The explosion occurred in the packaging area of the plant, and the company plans to hire outside suppliers to handle Slim Jim packaging until the Garner plant can be rebuilt and resume full operations.


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