North Carolina Slim Jim Plant Search Hampered Following Fatal Explosion

June 11, 2009

Searchers attempted on Wednesday to again enter a North Carolina meat products plant ripped apart by an explosion that killed at least two workers, officials said. One worker was still accounted for.

Overnight storms earlier forced teams to suspend their search of the ConAgra Foods Inc. manufacturing plant just south of Raleigh because rainwater made the damaged roof heavier and more dangerous, Police Sgt. Chris Clayton said.

Searchers were meeting to determine how to safely enter the massive building where Slim Jim meat snacks were made. Clayton said the bodies of the two victims were located in the rubble about 150 feet inside the plant. They hadn’t been recovered because of the roof and structure danger.

Officials also said ammonia that was released in the explosion Tuesday morning was no longer a threat and schools in the area planned to proceed with classes. Some roads in the area were still closed.

Clayton said 300 workers were in the plant when the blast occurred and 38 employees were injured, including four with critical burns. Three firefighters were treated for inhaling ammonia fumes and released.

ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said a fund was being set up to help families of victims and that employees would continue to be paid.

Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said families were “somewhat in limbo. They’re in a ton of uncertainty.”

The blast collapsed an exterior wall, smashing cars parked next to the 500,000-square-foot building.

Authorities could not say where in the plant the blast happened or what caused it, but some workers who escaped said chaos and panic followed.

Janelle Lynch, who has worked at the plant for eight years, said she saw flames and ran. She planned to leave through the cutting department, but the roof started to collapse, so she went in the other direction and escaped through a warehouse.

“I saw a fire and things just started exploding,” she said.

About 900 people cover four shifts at the plant, one of ConAgra’s largest, Jackson said. The ammonia is used to refrigerate meat before it’s turned into Slim Jims.

The company, which has 25,000 employees worldwide, makes brands like Chef Boyardee, Hunt’s tomato sauce, ACT II popcorn and Hebrew National hot dogs.

The plant was last inspected by the North Carolina Department of Labor for workplace safety last July and no violations were found, department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry said. The plant had violations in previous years, including a fine in 2007 for problems with eye and face protection equipment.

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