HAMLET — For the past six years, Bryant Simon — a professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia — has traveled frequently to North Carolina, gathering information for a book about the Imperial Foods processing plant fire of 1991.
“I was living in North Carolina when it happened,” Simon said. “Even before the fire, I was living in Raleigh and was going to Columbia every week to do research for my dissertation, and Hamlet was about half-way. I stopped because I knew (John) Coltrane was born here, and so was Tom Wicker, who was one of my heroes. So I remember being really aware of it and then when the fire happened I followed it really closely.”
Simon, who was in town for Thursday’s 25th Year of Remembrance of the Imperial Foods Fire Memorial Service, said he got the idea for his book while advising a student.
“I had a lot of friends who were journalists who covered it,” he recalled. “And then, years later, one of my grad students who is from North Carolina and I were talking about dissertation topics for him. I mentioned the Hamlet fire to him, but then I decided, ‘No, I’m going to write about that. You go find something else.”
During her speech at the memorial service, former Hamlet mayor Abbie Covington said, “Many of the news media were here then and are still here today to judge our community based on one horrible incident.”
Simon said he has been discerning in his selection of media sources used as research for his book.
“I started reading the really good journalists, from your paper and from the Raleigh paper,” Simon said. “Maybe there was some predatory journalism, but other people wrote some really great stuff. I started coming down here. The kind of stuff the News and Observer did and the Charlotte Observer, and there was an article written by Wil Haygood who wrote ‘The Butler.’ He wrote a brilliant piece about the town. He wrote it from a place of empathy, I think.”
Simon’s book, “Hamlet USA: An All-American Story,” is still a work in progress, he said, but mentioned that Hamlet City Manager Marcus Abernethy and others at city hall have been helpful in sharing documentation of the tragedy. He also said he was surprised at how little archived information on the Imperial Foods fire existed outside the city.
“At the state level — in Jim Martin’s papers, who was the governor at the time — there’s not a single folder on Hamlet,” he said. “There’s very little. And another thing, I knew the (U.S.) Department of Labor had done an investigation and interviewed all of the workers and supervisors, and I had to get a lawyer to help me get them to release the material.
“So the state-level stuff wasn’t great,” he continued. “And I talked to some people about generalized things. I talked to the pastor. I talked to some people who specialized in making chicken tenders. (Imperial) didn’t make chicken nuggets, they made tenders. I spoke to firefighters, not just here, so they could explain what that kind of fire was like. I’ve gone to Wisconsin to look at files for the union that represented the factory (Emmett) Roe had before they came here. The Roes don’t want to talk on the record. But I have talked to them.”
Taking many societal, financial and environmental factors into consideration, Simon said that from a sociological point of view, the Hamlet fire could be regarded as a “normal accident.”
“I think what was going on at the time was, (Imperial) really needed Hamlet — and Hamlet really needed Imperial — to make money,” he speculated. “And they are just pushing it, pushing both the equipment and workers beyond what they could do. At every level, the world was changing in such a way that set this up.”
He went on to say that the workers were likely well-aware of the risks they faced each day simply by showing up at the plant.
“But people couldn’t get up and say, ‘These conditions are wrong,’ and risk losing a job,” he said. “All the people I’ve talked to say they knew the conditions were dangerous. But they were single moms with two kids, and there were people ready to take their jobs if they lost them. And there were no jobs, nothing better. These were people made vulnerable by different historical forces.”
Simon explained that circumstances in place made it possible for Roe maintain a low-cost operation like Imperial Foods in the small town that had seen better days.
“Roe was going through labor, and in part that’s why he chose Hamlet,” Simon said. “It was an economically rational decision for him. Things had gotten to a point where to care about workers’ safety put you at a disadvantage, because your competitor didn’t. And the plant workers didn’t want their coworkers to complain because they didn’t want to the plant to leave.”
The legend goes that the plant’s exits were locked from outside because the owner was concerned about theft by employees.
“They weren’t stealing chickens,” Simon said. “It was an issue with flies. They locked the doors and the USDA signed off on it. And yes, it was illegal. It is illegal to lock doors. It violates a set of fire codes. It was illegal and it was also against best practices. But the reason it wasn’t inspected for 11 years is, if North Carolina had employed all of its OSHA inspectors at the time and had them going back-to-back doing inspections at all the plants, it would have taken 65 years to inspect every factory.”
According to Simon, the state had 34 employees, but only 28 of them conducted inspections.
“So in a sense, the Roes knew it, that they could operate free of any kind of intrusion,” Simon said. “On top of that, (Imperial) never actually registered with the state, so they were never in the pool to be inspected. So they never were official, it doesn’t seem like they ever had a business license to operate in North Carolina.”
Simon said he believes that Roe, who had owned similar operations in other remote towns in other states, preferred not to be the object of attention.
“It’s very clear that Emmett Roe was operating almost in anonymity,” he said. “He preferred it that way. A funny story, (a man from) the Chamber of Commerce goes over and introduces himself: Roe throws him out. He’s never had that reception before.
“There’s no sign on the door,” he continued, speaking of the plant. “They’re barely there. He wanted that anonymity. Did the development office provide that for him? I don’t know. Was the place ever inspected by the fire department? I can’t determine if it was. It doesn’t seem like it. The insurers don’t ever seem to go into that.”
He said that the only government interest the Imperial Foods plant in Hamlet did attract was from the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
“Again, the USDA is in there every day,” Simon said. “They’re bugging him about flies and hand-washing techniques for workers. So they are there protecting consumers, but they are not paying attention (to worker safety.) And it does say something that we’re willing to pay for that, in this country. We’re willing to pay for ag inspectors but we’re not willing to pay for worker safety inspectors.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.