Authorities have found the bodies of two people in the rubble of a Garner, North Carolina (N.C.) Slim Jim meat products plant that was jolted by an explosion.
Local Police Sgt. Joe Binns reported that the bodies have not yet been recovered. Binns said the search continues for a third person believed to have been inside. More than 40 people were taken to hospitals after the explosion at the ConAgra Inc. plant. The blast blew workers off their feet and collapsed a wall, crushing parked cars. Three firefighters needed medical attention after inhaling ammonia gases.
Chris Woods, a worker at the facility, said he started running after feeling an explosion around 11 a.m. "I was picking up a piece of meat off the line and I felt it, the percussion in my chest," Woods said. "One of the guys I was working with got blown back, he flew backwards."
Jeffrey Hammerstein, district chief with Wake County Emergency Medical Services, said 41 people — five tagged as priority patients with serious conditions — were taken to hospitals, including three firefighters. Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said injuries ranged from burns to smoke inhalation. Emergency crews were keeping people away because of concerns about ammonia, and Williams said there was a toxic cloud around the facility. Ammonia is used to refrigerate the meat before it is turned into Slim Jims, ConAgra spokesman Dave Jackson said.
Victims of the plant explosion were sent to five area hospitals. Four people were in critical condition at UNC Hospitals with burns covering between 40 and 60 percent of their bodies, said Dr. Charles Cairns, professor and chairman of the department of emergency medicine at the University of North Carolina.
"Anything that covers more than 50 percent of the body surface area is a very major burn and can be complex to take care of and can result in major complications, including death," Cairns said. "So these people are very severely burned."
About one-third of the 900 total workforce were in the plant a few miles south of Raleigh when the explosion happened, Jackson said. Parts of the roof collapsed. Officials said firefighters were still trying to contain a small fire and an ammonia leak several hours later. The plant employs four shifts at the 500,000-square foot plant, which produces Slim Jim products and is considered one of ConAgra’s largest, said Jackson, the spokesman for the Omaha, Neb.-based company. "Obviously our first priority is the safety of our employees and the community and making sure our employees are accounted for and working with them to get them whatever they might need," he said.
A team of experts were being flown to the facility by ConAgra to help local authorities. ConAgra Foods Inc. makes brands like Chef Boyardee, Hunt’s tomato sauce, ACT II popcorn and Hebrew National hot dogs. It has 25,000 employees worldwide.
North Carolina Department of Labor had inspected the plant for workplace safety last July and no violations were found, said Labor Department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry. The plant had violations in previous years, including a fine in 2007 for problems with eye and face protection equipment.
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