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The Tragic Story of the Hamlet Fire

A view of the cooker around which the 1991 Imperial Foods chicken processing plant fire was centered. Taken from this report by the United States Fire Administration.
United States Fire Administration
/
Wikimedia
A view of the cooker around which the1991 Imperial Foods chicken processing plant fire was centered. Taken from a report by the United States Fire Administration.

On the morning of September 3, 1991, the never-inspected chicken-processing plant a stone’s throw from city hall in tiny Hamlet, NC, burst into flames. Twenty-five people perished that day behind the plant’s locked and bolted doors. It remains one of the deadliest accidents ever in the history of the modern American food industry.

For decades, the small, quiet town of Hamlet, North Carolina, thrived thanks to the railroad. But by the 1970s, it had become a postindustrial backwater, a magnet for businesses in search of cheap labor and almost no oversight. Imperial Food Products was one of those businesses. The company set up shop in Hamlet in the 1980s. Workers who complained about low pay and hazardous working conditions at the plant were silenced or fired. But jobs were scarce in town, so workers kept coming back, and the company continued to operate with impunity.

Then, on the morning of September 3, 1991, the never-inspected chicken-processing plant a stone’s throw from Hamlet’s city hall burst into flames. Twenty-five people perished that day behind the plant’s locked and bolted doors. It remains one of the deadliest accidents ever in the history of the modern American food industry.

Bryant Simon, professor of history at Temple University, and author of The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (2021, UNC Press) talks with Walter Edgar about the market pressures, the governmental neglect, and the greed that lead to the tragedy.

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Dr. Walter Edgar has two programs on South Carolina Public Radio: Walter Edgar's Journal, and South Carolina from A to Z. Dr. Edgar receivedhisA.B.degreefromDavidson College in 1965 and his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 1969. After two years in the army (including a tour of duty in Vietnam), he returned to USC as a post-doctoral fellow of the National Archives, assigned to the Papers of Henry Laurens.