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How Cheap Labor Led To Tragedy In ‘The Hamlet Fire

Courtesy of Bryant Simon

In September, 1991, a deadly fire killed 25 people at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. 

Workers at the chicken processing facility tried to escape after a hydraulic line spilled flammable liquid on a fryer and ignited a fireball inside the facility.

However several exits were padlocked from the outside, trapping the workers as toxic smoke filled the plant. In the new book “The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives” (The New Press/2017), writer and historian Bryant Simon details how the fire happened and why the plant’s owner was able to operate the facility with little oversight.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Simon about the book and how Hamlet became a town that showed minimal regard for certain low-wage workers. Simon reads at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham today at 7 p.m.


Simon on the plant owner Emmett Roe and what brought him to Hamlet:

Emmett Roe ran a factory in Moosic, Pennsylvania. He made chicken products like chicken nuggets and chicken tenders. In the ‘70s and ‘80s his plant became more rickety and drew the attention of OSHA in Pennsylvania, and also a union was established in that plant. And Roe, looking to cut costs, looked to relocate the way many businesses have over a century of time. He also wanted to be close to his supply. He read an ad about a shuttered ice cream plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. I’m sure he did his research and found that unemployment rates were high. There was a particular large stock of single women looking for work, and that is just what he was looking for.

Simon on the conditions for workers at the Imperial Food Products plant:

The conditions were, as you can imagine, pretty onerous. In the cold side of the plant, it was so cold in the middle of July you had to wear gloves and two pairs of socks, and in the hot side of the plant, it didn’t matter if it was middle of winter, you were steaming all the time. As the fire was about to happen, the company was in a perilous state, and it jacked up the production lines so they were going faster and faster. Workers had three breaks a day. If they needed to go to the bathroom they needed to ask a supervisor who would often use that occasion to humiliate them and demean them. But one saving grace of the place was the equipment was so rickety and outdated that it broke on almost a daily basis giving the workers a break ... Ultimately it would be tragic, but before the fire they came to rely on the faulty quality of the equipment.

Simon on why many exit doors were padlocked on the outside the day of the fire:

The locking of the doors at the plant was about an agreement that Emmett Roe had with the USDA [Department of Agriculture]. Flies were coming into the plant … They were coming into the plant, and they couldn’t stop them, and the only solution they could come up with was locking the doors. It was, in a sense, regulation itself – regulation of the meat – that allowed for one of the real tragedies which was the locking of those back doors.

Simon on the aftermath of the fire in Hamlet:

The plant remains up for 10 years. It was really on the African-American side in Hamlet, and Hamlet was still a place that was divided spatially by race which meant that African-Americans, many of whom knew people who had died in the fire, had to pass that plant every day to go to church, to go to work, to go school. And it acted as a form of trauma to them, and trauma is one of the things that is really important about the post-fire world, despite the settlements some people get, and in some cases they are relatively fair. People suffer for years. They still suffer from the trauma of that day. And I think the town suffers from a certain trauma that fractures it in the wake of the fire. After a kind of moment where they come together there is a real fracturing in the town.


Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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