(WGHP) — Bryant Simon lived in Raleigh in 1991, and he was awoken – both figuratively and to a degree, intellectually – each morning by the delivery of his local paper The News & Observer.
“It was almost that thump every morning of the paper hitting the door that got me interested. There was powerful, extensive, emotive coverage of the fire, and it was hard to escape,” Simon said.
He is now a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, but the stories of what happened in the town of Hamlet, North Carolina, on Sep. 3, 1991, have stayed with him. That’s the fire he was referring to. It was a fire that killed 25 workers at the chicken processing plant in town. It affected him so deeply that he wrote a book about it titled “The Hamlet Fire: 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 listed, in detail, what the victims wore on their bodies at the time of their deaths. Betty Gail Kelly had on a blue shirt, white jeans and white shoes. She had a bow in her hair. Michael Allan Morrison had on 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 lays out in the book the case for how neglect 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 a kind of hard-to-navigate place…to help them,” he said about the situation when a hydraulic line failed (Simon says because it was not the proper hose) igniting a fire that produced both black smoke and killed the electricity in the building.
Many of the workers instinctively ran for the back of the building where they knew there were exit doors but found them locked. Although food inspectors were in the plant nearly every day, it never had a safety inspection in the 11 years of its operation. The doors led out to the back where some of the chicken waste was dumped, which is something that attracted flies by the thousands. The food inspectors told them they couldn’t have those flies in the food production area and signed off on the managers locking those doors to keep the flies out.
The fire led to some reforms in North Carolina but not to the degree the famous Triangle Shirt Factory fire did in New York City 80 years before.
“In 1911, when the Triangle factory blows up, and hundreds of people died, that creates a generation of reformers,” Simon said. “Their lineage moves into the New Deal and shapes the New Deal regulatory state. 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 all. There was no new army of safety inspectors.
“Agricultural inspectors who are in food plants and are supposed to notify people of safety violations…hasn’t really panned out,” Simon said. “That law is on the books, and it’s been renewed recently, but there’s very little indication that that’s panned out.”
For Simon, it’s the story of big business taking advantage of the tough economic times towns like Hamlet were going through in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Simon puts much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of Emmitt Roe, who owned the plant and eventually went to prison after being convicted of 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
“What Emmitt Roe knew was he had a monopoly on a labor supply there. And he knew that this town had gone from a high-wage town to one that was going to be accepting of his kind of logic of accepting of cheap,” Simon said. “Workers still suffer to make our basic necessities. We can feel some distance from this moment, but we should feel cautious about that.”
See more about that tragic day in this edition of the Buckley Report.