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Somber anniversary of a North Carolina worker tragedy

A few days ago, we here in North Carolina saw the passing of a terrible anniversary: on September 3 it was 26 years to the day since a deadly fire at a Hamlet factory. Twenty-five workers died in the blaze at the chicken processing plant and another 40 were injured.

After the tragedy, the owner of the company was sentenced to 20 years in prison (he served four) and the factory was assessed the largest fine in state history. Many observers believe that the only silver lining to the awful events of that day was that government, inspectors, workers and owners all began to pay closer attention to worker safety standards.

Hamlet is about a 90-minute drive southeast of Charlotte. The 1991 fire there began when a fryer ignited and flames spread from oil and grease on the factory floor. The sprinkler system failed and as workers ran through blinding smoke to try to escape, they found locked doors.

Victims were overcome by carbon monoxide. Firefighters found piles of bodies of dead and injured workers.

Eighty-one workers were inside the building when the blaze began. Of that group, 25 died that day and 40 more were injured, Smithsonian magazine noted in a recent article remembering North Carolina's worst industrial accident.

There is no way to undo the deadly events that unfolded 26 years ago at Imperial Food Products, but we can all undertake to make today's factories and other workplaces safer.

Injured North Carolina workers have rights under our state's workers' compensation laws. If your workers' comp claim has been denied, you have the right to appeal with the help of an attorney.

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