Three dead, 38 injured in food plant explosion

GARNER, N.C. – The bodies of three workers missing after an explosion that caused the collapse of the ConAgra Slim Jim plant here have been discovered, according to police. The only victim identified thus far is Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn, N.C. Her brother, Anthony McLean, 38, told the press that Spears was a veteran of 15 years at the plant and that at the time of her death she was working in the cutting department. Her body was pulled out of the rubble Tuesday night, just before heavy rains forced a night long suspension of search and rescue efforts. The concern was that the torrential downpours could cause further collapse of the unstable structure.

More than 300 workers were on the job at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday when the explosion ripped through the plant. About 900 workers cover four shifts at the plant.

Many workers suffered from severe burns and exposure to toxic fumes from ammonia leaks. At meat packing plants ammonia is used to refrigerate meat before it is turned into the final product, in this case Slim Jims, and packaged.

Search teams are currently making their way through small openings in piles of rubble to make sure all workers are accounted for.

“The structure is not at all stable, so we have to be very careful,” Frank McLaurin, a battalion chief with the North Carolina Task Force Urban Search and Rescue, told the World.

McLaurin said the instability was forcing his men to work much more slowly than they would like. He said the plan was to bring in cranes which will “start picking the building apart” and moving many tons of debris that have to be cleared away before rescuers can have full access.

Protective suits are being worn, he said, because ammonia vapor is rising up through the debris.

ConAgra, one of the nation’s largest packaged food companies, has a history of contentious relations with government regulators.

Company officials last summer repeatedly dodged efforts by health investigators to locate E. coli-tainted meat that sickened people in Colorado. The company was eventually forced to recall 19 million pounds of packaged meat.

Also last summer, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges against Con Agra executives who had been involved in various schemes to inflate company earnings.
The plant in Garner has been cited for safety violations.

In 2001, government inspectors noted 34 violations, including missing wall guards and dangerous openings and holes in floors. The company received only a slap on the wrist and paid the then Bush-controlled Occupational Health and Safety Administration a $12,100 fine.

The plant was not inspected again until 2003 and since then there have been three inspections that resulted in citations. Those were for lack of eye and face protection for workers and for lack of a plan to deal with dangers posed by hazardous materials.

ConAgra spokesperson Stephanie Childs would not comment on the health and safety violations and said, “We are going to continue to work with the local authorities to investigate what was the cause of this accident. Our focus has to be on our employees, their safety and their well-being.” Childs said a “fund” was being set up to help families of victims and that “employees will continue to be paid.”

When asked about what the company would do to help the families of the dead, Childs said, “We extend our sympathy to family and loved ones and the company will work with families to provide any support possible.”

The cause of the explosion remained unknown Wednesday afternoon.

“What I saw and heard was this boom, and the ceiling started coming down, and we all started running,” Gail Ruffin, a worker who wasn’t injured told the press. “Everyone was trying to get to the exit door…I was just trying to get out, and then I saw people who were burned and had blood all over them.”

At least 38 workers were taken to hospitals in the area. Four workers are in critical condition at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill. They suffered burns over 40 to 60 percent of their bodies. In addition to burns, many of the workers suffered broken bones and contusions.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, has also sent a team of experts to the site.