HAMLET, N.C. -- Twenty-five people were killed and 40 were injured early yesterday as a fire believed to have started in giant grease-filled vats swept through a chicken-processing plant in Hamlet.
Many of the dead were found at exits from the plant, frozen in poses of escape. Also, said Hamlet Fire Chief David Fuller, some victims were found in a freezer where they had apparently fled to avoid the fire.
Some former and current employees complained yesterday of insufficient fire exits and of blocked or locked fire exits. Chief Fuller said the fire investigation had yet to determine whether people had been prevented from escaping.
"They were screaming 'Let me out!' " Sam Breeden told the Associated Press. Mr. Breeden was passing the Imperial Food Products plant about 8:30 a.m. when the fire broke out. "They were beating on the door," he said.
Blackened footprints could be seen later on a door where workers tried to kick their way out to escape the fire that is believed to have begun in a 26-foot-long fryer, the AP reported.
The fire brought high drama to this small southeastern North Carolina town. One of the firefighters discovered his own father among the dead as he and others searched the warren of cobbled-together buildings, Chief Fuller said.
Charles Dunn, deputy director of the State Bureau of Investigation, said last night that the fire began with a ruptured hydraulic line that ran a conveyor belt carrying chicken parts. The line broke, and the fluid vaporized and was ignited by nearby flames from a gas fryer, Mr. Dunn said. He called the blaze an accident.
The plant had never received a safety inspection in its 11 years of operation, according to state officials, the Associated Press reported.
"There are probably too many places like this that we haven' even heard existed, nor have we inspected, that are in need of regular inspections," Labor Commissioner John Brooks said.
The frying vats were used to fry chicken parts for delivery to restaurants and fast-food outlets.
The fire started about 8 a.m., shortly after the first morning shift of about 200 people started work. Rescue workers and firefighters were still removing bodies from the series of brick and cinder block buildings well into the afternoon. Many of the injured -- suffering from burns and smoke inhalation -- were ferried to hospitals as far away as Durham, 120 miles away.
It was the search-and-rescue efforts rather than the extinguishing of the fire that most occupied firefighters. They spent about three hours looking for and helping survivors, Chief Fuller said. The fire was extinguished in 45 minutes.
"I never saw a flame myself," Chief Fuller said, noting that the thick, yellowish smoke that issued from the plant appeared to be from a combination of soybean oil and chicken parts and a foam insulation.
Chief Fuller said there had been a fire at the plant in 198 involving the fryer unit that they believe was the one involved in yesterday's blaze.
Early in the day, Daisy Ratliff, who lives near the plant and worked there two years ago, said she saw at least three bodies wrapped in sheets and lying on the grass of a parking area across the street from the plant. She said that she saw injured workers sprawled on the ground and that many were in need of help.
"It was pitiful, it was sad, it was terrible," she said. "I used to work on the line breading chicken, and it was awfully dangerous in there. I ain't going to tell no lie."