ATLANTA -- The North Carolina Department of Labor fined the owner of a Hamlet, N.C., chicken-processing plant $808,150 yesterday for safety violations that it said contributed to the deaths of 25 people in a fire September 3.
The amount was quickly criticized by survivors and relatives of the fire victims as little more than "a slap on the wrist" for the plant's operator, Imperial Food Products Co. of Cummings, Ga.
An AFL-CIO official said the fines against the plant, a non-union factory, paled beside those in other recent industrial accidents that resulted in deaths and in which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency, was the sole enforcement agency.
The North Carolina Department of Labor administers the state's occupational health and safety program, with federal approval. North Carolina is one of 23 states that run their own safety inspection programs; the others rely on the federal agency.
John C. Brooks, the North Carolina commissioner of labor, said the fine was the largest such penalty in the state's history.
Officials of the company, which since the fire has closed its plant in Hamlet and one in Cummings, could not be reached for comment. In response to civil suits, Imperial has called the fire an "unavoidable accident."
The fire started with hydraulic fluid from a ruptured line spraying into flames that heated large, oil-filled cooking vats.
The violations included locked fire exits, exits too distant from hazardous areas, and inadequate emergency lighting and markings.
The fine and other safety measures taken by the federal government since the fire were too little and too late, relatives of some of the fire victims said yesterday.
"To me, this fine is a drop in the bucket," said Peggy Brown, the sister of Mary Alice Quick, who was killed in the fire. "I'm angry, and it brings me no relief, really."