Cold, hard winter settles on town 3 1/2 months after deadly chicken plant fire Lives, economy struggle to recover in Hamlet, N.C.

December 26, 1991|By Edward H. Shur | Edward H. Shur,Sun Staff Correspondent

HAMLET, N.C. -- "This reminds me of a huge tomb," Mayor Abbie G. Covington said, looking at the burned-out Imperial Food Products plant, 3 1/2 months after a fire killed 25 people and left 56 others injured.

"I wish someone would tear it down. No one will regard this spot . . . as anything but a tomb."

The tragedy has touched the lives of nearly all of the city's nearly 6,700 residents. Getting through Thanksgiving and Christmas isn't easy, financially or emotionally.

Economically, Imperial Food was the largest employer in the corporate limits, providing 225 jobs. Hourly pay at the non-union plant, in business for 11 years, ranged from $5.85 down to minimum wage.

"We lost jobs, the company paid water and taxes to the city, its salaries created expendable income in town," Mrs. Covington said. "That's lost and won't be replaced, since Imperial has no plans to rebuild."

The mayor said only 10 percent of the plant's former workers have found employment."Sometimes as you go through this, you're depressed," she said. "The futility of people trying to locate employment is hard to deal with.

"There's not a great deal of employment here now. Their [other 90 percent] chances of finding jobs are not good."

Mrs. Covington said Imperial's owners don't plan to rebuild the plant, even if their insurance company pays off the mortgage.

A criminal investigation continues. Families of the deceased are receiving two-thirds of the victims' wages for 400 weeks. In addition, relatives of the 18 women and seven men who died have filed 10 civil suits against the company.

In its first public statement on the tragedy, Imperial responded in court documents by saying that the blaze was "an unavoidable accident" for which it shouldn't be held responsible, that victims received workers' compensation and that the case doesn't meet the standard under which victims could sue for additional damages, the Raleigh News and Observer reported.

The mayor said she's working on opportunities with the county and state to develop new industrial prospects.

But the mayor is not overly optimistic. In fact, she said she's dreading the start of the new year.

"The worst is yet to come -- the real pain," Mrs. Covington said. "Until now, we've had United Way dollars [the agency raised $195,000] and other financial aid for people, but it has run out.

"We have a food bank and hope to do monthly distributions, including coats. But there's just not going to be a lot of help with these situations."

This winter, she said, "will be the worst."

"Some people will have to be moving out of their houses because they can't pay the rent [or mortgage]."

She said the city has no homeless shelters but "may have to have one before winter."

Finances are on the mind of Pearlie S. Gagnon, whose husband, a maintenance worker, died while working on a fryer. Since her husband handled the money, she had to learn "how to pay the bills."

"John Sr. was the sole bread-winner," said Mrs. Gagnon, who has three children: John Jr., 18; Michael, 16; and Scott, 13. "Financially, this is the worst time ever. It's hard.

"The only money we had was some insurance through the plant. I'm going back to work [as a nurse] after the holidays."

Emotionally, "it really has been rough," she said, adding she's "yet to learn if time heals everything."

"Friends and family have been everything, but there are empty spaces, especially during the holidays. Only when a lot of people are around is it a little better."

She said her husband's death has tested her faith, which has been an important part of her family's life -- and still is. Church activities, she said, have helped pull the family through.

"I've asked 'why' even though I know we're not supposed to -- but it's hard. It's a struggle, but without God, there's no way we could have made it."

For the 17 children who lost parents in the fire, there have been a few bright spots:

* A Christmas party for 16 of the 17 (one has moved away) took place Dec. 18 at the Hamlet Senior Center.

It was the culmination of a Maryland effort to help the youngsters put aside their grief and enjoy the spirit of the season, at least for a little while.

"Hands for Hamlet," spearheaded by Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, a group of Carroll County business leaders and 1,800 students at Westminster's East and West middle schools, resulted in $5,500 in gifts for the Hamlet children, who range in age from 5 to 18.

Mrs. Covington said Westminster was the only community in the country to call her with an offer of help.

The Westminster students raised about $4,000 to purchase clothing and toys -- boom boxes, music tapes, sports equipment and Nintendo games, chosen specifically for each child.

The Hamlet youngsters also received $75 K mart gift certificates.

* A New York City minister took 98 Hamlet children to the Big Apple earlier this month. The youngsters, children of former Imperial employees, visited the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and other tourist sites. The trip was financed through donations.

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