Remembering the Hamlet Chicken Factory Fire

(WGHP) – Bryant Simon lived in Raleigh in 1991, and he was awakened – both figuratively and to some extent, intellectually – every morning by the delivery of his local newspaper The News & Observer.

“It was almost that thud every morning of the paper hitting the door that interested me. There was powerful, widespread, emotional coverage of the fire, and it was hard to escape,” Simon said.

He is now a professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia, but the stories of what happened in the town of Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 3, 1991, have stayed with him. This is the fire he was talking about. It was a fire that killed 25 workers at the city’s chicken processing plant. It touched him so much that he wrote a book about it called “The Hamlet Burning: The Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives.”

In the book, he tries to bring the victims to life.

“The medical examiners have listed, in detail, what the victims were wearing on their bodies at the time of their death. Betty Gail Kelly wore a blue shirt, white jeans and white shoes. She had a knot in her hair. Michael Allan Morrison wore rubber boots and a black t-shirt with the words ‘I survived Hugo’, a hurricane that blew through the Carolinas in 1989,” the book reads.

He also explains in the book how negligence more than anything else led to both the fire and how deadly it was.

“There was no pre-fire plan in place. There was no map of the plant which was kind of a hard place to navigate…to help them,” he said of the situation where a hydraulic line failed (Simon says because it was the wrong pipe) starting a fire that produced both black smoke and killed the electricity in the building.

Many workers instinctively ran to the back of the building where they knew there were exit doors but found them locked. Although food inspectors have visited the plant almost daily, there has never been a safety inspection during the 11 years of operation. The doors led out to the back where some of the chicken waste was dumped, attracting flies by the thousands. The food inspectors told them they couldn’t have those flies in the food production area and allowed the managers to lock those doors to keep the flies out.

The fire led to reform in North Carolina, but not to the same degree as the famous Triangle Shirt Factory fire in New York 80 years earlier.

“In 1911, when the Triangle factory exploded and hundreds died, it created a generation of reformers,” Simon said. “Their lineage moves into the New Deal and shapes the regulatory state of the New Deal. Frances Perkins, President Franklin Roosevelt himself was influenced by it.

In the aftermath of the Hamlet fire, there was a movement to train USDA food inspectors to identify serious safety issues they could report, but that was it. There was no new army of security inspectors.

“Agricultural inspectors who are in food factories and are supposed to tell people about safety violations… haven’t really worked,” Simon said. “This law is on the books, and it was renewed recently, but there is very little indication that it has come to fruition.”

For Simon, it’s a story of big business taking advantage of the tough economic times that towns like Hamlet were going through in the 1980s and early 1990s. Simon puts much of the blame on the shoulders of Emmitt Roe, factory owner and eventually went to jail after being found guilty of 25 counts of manslaughter.

“What Emmitt Roe knew was that he had a monopoly on the labor supply there. And he knew that this town had gone from a high-wage town to a town that was going to accept his kind of logic of accepting cheapness,” Simon said. “Workers are still suffering to meet our basic needs. We may feel some distance from this moment, but we have to be careful about it.

Learn more about that tragic day in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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