Hamlet Chicken Processing Plant Fire

There were 90 employees in the facility at the time of the fire, which began when a 25 foot (7.6 m) long deep fat fryer vat apparently spontaneously ignited at around 8:30 AM. This cooker's temperature was controlled by thermostat and was maintained at a constant 375 °F (190 °C), which was variable by design to 15 °F (8.3 °C) either way. The fire spread rapidly, sending workers into a panic so that some suffered trauma injuries during their rush to escape. Large quantities of smoke were produced by a combination of burning soybean oil and chicken, and melting roof insulation. The smoke was later found to be hydrocarbon-charged and therefore had the potential to disable someone within a few breaths. Several gas lines embedded in the ceiling also caught fire and
exploded.

Most of those who escaped unharmed were workers in the front of the building and got out through the unlocked main entrance, but most workers were trapped by a curtain of smoke. Others tried to escape through the locked doors by kicking them down, but without success; most of the survivors from the rear of the building got out via a loading bay. The bay was originally blocked by a tractor-trailer, but three workers went into the rear of the truck and pounded on the walls until they were heard by rescuers who moved the vehicle. Others escaped when several workers managed to break open a few of the doors, though for many this came too late.

The injured were sent to several different hospitals for treatment for their injuries. One of the deceased worked for an external company and was resupplying the on-site vending machines; no one even realized he was inside the plant until the company he worked for reported his truck missing.

Twenty-five people died and fifty-four suffered injuries or aftereffects such as burns, blindness, respiratory disease from smoke inhalation, neurological and brain damage, and post traumatic stress disorder. Of the dead, 18 were female and 7 were male.

When the screaming started, Carolyn Rainwater was 'stripping tenders,' pulling ribbons of white meat off chicken breasts for processing. When the screaming grew louder, she looked up and saw the smoke.

'It was the blackest smoke I had ever seen in my life,' said the 50 year-old grandmother, one of the few workers t oescape serious injury when deadly smoke from a flash fire raced through the Imperial Foods Co. plant Tuesday morning.

Twenty-five people were killed, 49 were injured.

The boundary of life and death was set by the billowing wall of toxic smoke. Those who worked in the front of the building were able to escape through a main entrance. Those in the back were trapped between the poisonous fumes and doors locked, employees say, to prevent pilferage. The smoke created panic, then chaos. It chased some workers into room-size coolers where they froze. It smothered others as they groped, gasping in the dark for escape. Friends and co-workers died together in clumps on the factory floor.