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ConAgra plant blast victims remembered

A town and factory paused on Wednesday to remember four people killed from an explosion at the Slim Jim plant in Garner a year ago.

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GARNER, N.C. — A town and factory paused on Wednesday to remember four people killed from an explosion at the Slim Jim plant in Garner a year ago.

The June 9, 2009, explosion tore through the 425,000-square foot plant on Jones Sausage Road, which is owned by ConAgra Foods Inc., punching holes in the roof, blowing out a wall and rupturing ammonia lines. It about 300 workers running from the building. Sixty-seven were injured.

“The roller coaster ride of 12 months ago started out with shock, surprise. I didn't really believe what I was hearing that the explosion took place,” Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said Wednesday.

Three workers were killed instantly by the blast: Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn; Rachel Mae Poston Pulley, 67, of Clayton; and Louis Junior Watson, 33, of Clayton. Energy System Analysts contractor Curtis Raye Poppe, 55, of Stony Point, died in November at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals.

On Wednesday morning, a private memorial service was held at the plant.

“We’ll always mourn their deaths, however, more importantly, we'll always remember their lives and the great blessing they were to their families and their friends,” David Sweeney, ConAgra Foods operations manager, said.

In the afternoon, a memorial plaque was unveiled publicly in Garner's White Deer Park Greenway. A picnic for ConAgra employees and their families at Lake Benson Park followed.

“It’s hard, especially with me still working out there,” Watson's mother, Debra Pettiway, said. "I have my bad moments, and I have my good moments. I know he (Watson) wouldn't want me sitting around crying."

The fallout has continued long after the fatal explosion at the plant.

Federal investigators determined that the blast was caused by contractors venting natural gas inside the facility while installing a water heater.

ConAgra paid a $106,440 state fine and has agreed to pay Raleigh $42,858 for the emergency response; Energy System Analysts is facing a $58,100 fine. Dozens of workers have sued the town of Garner and nearly 20 contractors and suppliers. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board approved new industry-wide safety recommendations, and North Carolina changed its safety codes.

The plant reopened in August, but in November, ConAgra laid off 300 employees, citing reduced production capacity due to damage from the explosion.

In March, company officials announced that the plant will be closed by September 2011, terminating the remaining 450 jobs.

Production of Slim Jims, which were once made only in Garner, will be shifted to Troy, Ohio.