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Still Burning
After a Deadly Fire, a Town's Losses Were Just Beginning

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 10, 2002; Page F01

HAMLET, N.C.

It seems as if the dead are still dying here.

Everyone had mentioned "time" to the survivors. It would be a tonic against the grief, it would cure things. But what to do if the grief keeps outwitting time? What to do if it is deeper than time itself?

Eleven years ago in this beaten-down town, a chicken plant called Imperial Food Products caught fire. Twenty-five people died. Mostly mothers, many of whom had become young grandmothers. Slipping the arms of children into coat sleeves. "We got six bodies," says Chip Knotts of Nelson's Funeral Home. "That's pretty tough -- even for a mortician."

Fifty-three were injured. And a good many who survived now sleep like owls at 3 a.m., which is to say they barely sleep at all.

Some of the children who lost parents went loping off into the night, setting fires. "Burning fields," says Conester Williams, a plant survivor.

It can seem, at times, like the town of Hamlet is still afire. In the aftermath came bankruptcies, addiction to painkillers, suicide, murder. All the bullets that followed seemed to backtrack through the smoke, into the building, through the fire. For some, it was fire, then off to the hospital, and not long after the physical healing, right into the small rooms over at the mental ward in Pinehurst.

The whole tale is almost biblical. Fire. Plumes of smoke. Blood spilling inside families. A great many souls have been sagging in church pews looking for some kind of light, some kind of explanation.

The locals just referred to it as Imperial. If your application went through in the morning, you could find yourself working that very day, on the late shift. And if you lived in the Larry Hubbard Homes, a housing project, all you had to do was walk a few blocks -- right past the pine trees, less than 10 minutes -- and there you were, at Imperial. A one-floor Tobacco Road-era brick building with just one door used for entry. The owners were convinced that employees sometimes stole pieces of chicken, so most of the exit doors were kept padlocked. Inside, there were conveyor belts, concrete floors, vats of grease that could climb above 500 degrees. The specialty was chicken tenders that were shipped up and down the East Coast and throughout the South.

Annette Zimmerman was living in the projects at the time she started working for Imperial. She quit a job at a Shoney's restaurant. "I gave two weeks' notice, walked over to Imperial Foods and they hired me. Told me to report the next day, second shift."

On Sept. 3, 1991, 103 people from Hamlet -- and a few nearby counties -- rose, got dressed and went to punch a time clock.

"When I went out on the porch, I looked at my neighbor," recalls Cleo Reddick, "and said, 'You know something? I just don't feel like going to work this morning.' "

Of course she went. The family had to eat.

It was a Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. Reddick had worked the weekend, was due to be off Tuesday. "They asked us that Saturday for volunteers," she says. "My hand flew up. I don't know why."

Bobby Quick, Evelyn Wall, Conester Williams, Annette Zimmerman and 99 others. Michael Morrison. Fred Barrington and Josephine Barrington, known to everyone as Miz Josephine. And 96 others. Just workers. Just a little joyful that Tuesday morning, Tuesday being payday.

The "trim room" was where the chickens got cut, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of chicken a day. When Loretta Goodwin showed up for work that day, she was sent directly to the trim room. "I said, 'Oh Lawd.' I did not want to go to the trim room. You messin' with raw chicken. I went anyway." She donned her apron. "I got to weighing chickens," she remembers. "After awhile, I heard some hollering. Whoo. Whoo. Whoo."

She counted six women swooshing by her.

"I saw the fire as it was rolling up the conveyor belt," says Evelyn Wall.

"I felt the building shake," recalls maintenance worker Bobby Quick, who had been sweeping up. "I thought it was a train on the tracks out back. Three seconds later, I heard the women screaming." A hydraulic line had broken, starting a chain of events that unleashed spasms of fire. He turned to the screaming voices. "And a group of women bum-rushed me." He suddenly felt disoriented.

"We see supervisors running," says Williams, who was in another part of the plant. "We don't know jack."

Goodwin suddenly knew why the six women were scampering through the door near her. "They were hollering, 'Fire!' I panicked. Then I said, 'Oh my God, this place is on fire!' " Her head swiveled, back and forth, back and forth. "Somebody said, 'You better run!' I ran to the loading dock area. They were screaming: 'We're going to die in here!' I heard a whistling sound, like ssssss. It reminded me of that Persian Gulf whistling missile sound."

Reddick was on her way to take a break. "I had two quarters in my smock. I was going to buy a soda. All of a sudden, I heard a lot of noises. I glanced over my right shoulder. The fryer had exploded. People were pushing. And in less than two minutes, it went pitch black. I heard people screaming. I was in the dark and had glasses on. I only weighed 119 pounds. The smoke and fumes were going so strong that I had my mouth closed. I kept trying to breathe through my nose. I took my glasses off. The heat was building up. Sparks were coming down from the ceiling. I felt a need to swallow and I did. It tasted bitter. And then I fell out."

A gas line broke in the ceiling and quickly turned into "a torch," says Quick. "The last thing I remember," says Zimmerman, "is we were trapped and the door was locked. I do remember a woman saying, 'Hold hands and let's pray.' "

Williams couldn't find Miz Josephine. Miz Josephine couldn't find her son, Fred. Even unconscious, Reddick could feel herself being trampled. Feet on her chest, like people dancing.

The smoke was circling like white syrup.

Mattie Fairley, also working in the trim room, took a few steps in the sudden darkness. She turned, left, right, left, around and around in circles. She felt something at her feet. She looked down. It was her mother-in-law. "She had fell. She was already dead."

As he looked around, Quick saw people just drop. Like tossed clothing. "I peed in my clothes," he admits. "My nerves broke down." He was looking for unlocked doors. "I opened one door and a flame shot over my head."

But then came voices of women behind another door. Smoke and circling fire between them and life, between them and the grandbabies. He kicked at the metal door. "It snapped back and knocked me down twice." Rising to his feet, it became a test of wills: him and the damn door. "I couldn't breathe. You could just feel all of the oxygen being pulled out of that area. I looked at that door again and seen my family flash before my eyes."

He was not finished with the door.

"So I went back about 15 yards," he remembers. "I cleared people out of the way. And I took a running start for the door, and when I neared it my body went up into the air and was parallel" with the floor.

A boom. And the door banged open. The freed women -- 10 of them -- flew like geese. "When the door came open," he says, "another explosion erupted."

It was yet another gas line.

He raced to another room, got inside a door. A pile of bodies. "Everybody on top was dead. We started pulling bodies off."

He noticed the lady in the smock. The lady with the two quarters. Cleo Reddick. "I pulled on Cleo Reddick. Her breathing was real shallow. Her mouth was filled with soot."

Fairley ran behind a man, who was headed for a beam of light. The light was actually a small opening in a wall. The man -- his body small as a child's -- squeezed through it and vanished. Fairley knew she couldn't get through the hole. So she poked her head out, gulping air and seeing light. And in one of those strange, weird moments that surface in tragedy, she spotted Sam Breeden, her brother-in-law, walking down a road across from the plant.

"Hey, Sam! Help me! Help!" she screamed and began losing breath, fading in and out.

"As I was approaching the building," recalls Breeden, "I heard someone calling my name. I run up and it was my sister-in-law. She was trying to get some air. Eventually I could hear people knocking on the metal wall where she was. She was trying to get air. The only thing I could do -- I had a Baltimore Orioles cap on -- is start fanning around her so she could breathe. I went around the building. There was a door, but there was a lock on it. I had to catch my own breath."

The extreme heat and fire damaged the phone system inside the plant. "It wasn't called in to us at all," recalls Calvin White, a Hamlet fire captain at the time and now Hamlet's assistant fire chief. "So Brad Roe [the owner's son] couldn't call. He got in his vehicle and drove up here. He told us Imperial Foods was on fire. But he never mentioned anybody was in there."

The Color of Death

By the time White arrived, people had broken free and were scurrying from the building.

Bodies were brought out, and many were covered with soot and grease.

You couldn't tell black from white.

You tried giving CPR to anyone, says Breeden. "The word 'racism' wasn't in the dictionary that day."

"I don't know how I got out," says Evelyn Wall.

Fred Barrington got out. He stood outside the plant in a daze. Taking in deep breaths like a man sprung from a gas chamber. Then he snapped to attention -- a man, a son. A son looked around for his mother.

For his mama.

He didn't see her and bolted back inside.

Fire Capt. White led a crew inside the building. He walked into one room, which turned out to be a cooler. "There were claw marks on the walls where people tried to get out."

Bobby Quick's wife, Kay, had circled around a roadblock to get as close as she could to the scene. She got out of her car and started striding. "I had Crystal on my hips," she says of the couple's daughter, "and tears running down my face."

Quick saw his wife coming and walked toward her. She had no idea who the man coming toward her was; it was the soot. "I didn't recognize my own husband when he came up to me," she recalls. "All I could see was the white in his eyes."

Bobby Quick saw Michael Morrison come out. Morrison turned around, went back into the plant, came out again minutes later "and dropped dead," says Quick.

Finally, there she was, Miz Josephine. And Fred Barrington, too. Both in body bags. Dead.

Twenty-five dead. Poor folk, mostly women. Many of the survivors were ferried in helicopters to trauma and burn units throughout the state.

When Calvin White, the fire captain, walked outside, there was Phil Dawkins. The man who delivered crackers to the fire station snack machines. Tuesday was Dawkins's day to deliver snacks to Imperial Foods. Phil Dawkins, in a body bag.

A Grieving House Divided

A short while after all the burials -- "It was like losing 25 members of your own family," says Annette Zimmerman -- plans began for a memorial to the dead.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson rushed to Hamlet after the fire, preaching, clutching a Bible.

"Party, we need to go to Hamlet!" Jackson had cried out in a Democratic Party speech. "We need to take America to Hamlet today, we need to let all the Hamlets of America know we stand with them! We cannot lead where we do not go.

"We got to go to Hamlet!"

It was pure Jesse: near-poetry coupled with partisanship. It had long been the gift of Jackson to take minds to unknown and hurting places. But it came during a presidential campaign and there were those who thought it was grandstanding.

Then-Mayor Abbie Covington led the city's memorial effort. But many plant survivors -- hearing that Covington didn't want Jackson involved in the event -- began making plans of their own. "Several of the individuals were anxious to have him speak," Covington recalls of Jackson. "We didn't feel it was appropriate. It was our tragedy." And that is when the brouhaha began. That is when things turned stark as black and white.

"I very much resented his presence here," says Cordelia Steele, a mental health worker who presided over therapy sessions with some of the plant survivors. "He had no right to come here." Some of the black and white turned grayish: Steele is black.

In the South, however, race is always the big bone to chew on. Even when the bone deserves no gnawing. Somehow race creeped into the memorial debate. Or at least some thought so: Others imagined it being more about class than race, more City Hall power brokers against the minimum-wage earners from the chicken plant who wanted Jackson. "When the smoke cleared," says Breeden -- referring to the ideological smoke -- "it was 'that' group versus 'this' group."

Jackson got his invite. But City Hall wouldn't budge. And for weeks the bone got chewed on.

The group of survivors who invited Jackson had their ceremony just yards from St. Peter's United Methodist Church, which caters to a mostly black congregation. And there stood Jesse Jackson.

The official city of Hamlet ceremony was held by City Lake.

And that is how the city of Hamlet, in a time of fire, came to raise two separate, nearly identical monuments -- only 50 yards from each other -- to its dead.

"I think when the memorials were erected the wounds were still fresh," says Wayne Goodwin, a state representative whose district includes the plant site.

Less than a year after the Imperial fire, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a host of new worker-safety laws. (In its 11 years of existence, the plant had never had an official state inspection.) In addition, the North Carolina Department of Labor fined the owners of the plant $808,000, the largest workplace fine ever in North Carolina.

Emmett Roe, owner of Imperial, was charged with numerous counts of manslaughter, along with his son, Brad, and another plant supervisor. The elder Roe agreed to plead guilty in 1992 if charges against the other two were dropped. Prosecutors accepted the deal, and Roe served a little more than four years in prison. Upon his release, he moved to Georgia and obscurity.

The Lingering Pain

When the settlement money started to roll in -- $16 million from insurance companies -- many thought life would get better. Only the respiratory problems wouldn't go away. The back woes wouldn't go away. And even when the bodies were working decently, the minds seemed stuck in a rickety plant with padlocked doors.

Money was one thing, those painkillers quite another. Zimmerman found herself hooked on her medication. "I never grieved," she says. "I cried. I stayed so sick and so doped up [medicated] I didn't have a chance to grieve. First thing they did was hook you on antidepressants. The strongest thing I had ever been on was Tylenol. I had to be detoxed three times from all the medication they gave me."

The liquor came right behind the pills. "I had been on a drinking binge," she says. "God couldn't help me. I went on death rages. My two best friends were dead."

In trying to escape the fire and explosions, Zimmerman had fallen and thumped her head inside the plant. It wasn't long before the migraines started. They had her in and out of the hospital. One time she opened her eyes and there she was: on the mental ward, out at the hospital in Pinehurst. "That hurt me to have my pastor come see me in a mental ward," she says. "I said, 'I don't care how depressed I get, my pastor will never see me here again.' "

It so hurt Evelyn Wall to go into Hamlet, to go shopping. No telling who she'd run into. "Elaine Ratliff's mother would say to me, 'Why did Elaine have to die and you lived?' I couldn't answer that for her."

Wall got $200,000. "I never put any of it in the bank," Wall now says. "I'm broke." She's got a host of medical ailments from the fire that still bedevil her. "We're little people down here," she says. "People hardly say anything about Imperial Foods anymore. Like we weren't human."

For a long time, Mattie Fairley couldn't leave her house. She just couldn't get beyond the front door. When she finally did, she ended up at Pinehurst. On the mental ward. That felt weird: "I use to work out there, in the housekeeping department," she says.

Elaine Griffin got out of the plant that day, held on, and got her settlement. Like others, she was grateful for it. But arguments over money kept erupting between her and her husband, Al. Stepping from living room to porch one afternoon -- it was May 27, 1998 -- her husband walked up behind her and put a bullet through her skull. So she's gone and Al is in prison, and she gets remembered in church pews by women with bowed heads.

There are quiet anniversary events, gatherings and prayers. Patricia Hatcher, whose injuries from the plant fire were quite severe, didn't make it to the remembrance in 2000. Her health had started to spiral downward, and on May 20, 2000, she died. Her husband, Felton Hatcher, made it to the memorial that year. He said he wanted to be there to represent Patricia. Zimmerman and Wall and a few other survivors thought he seemed especially melancholy.

On Jan. 28, 2001, Felton Hatcher died by his own hand. It was a gun. And so: a gun, an absence, a wife trapped in a chicken plant.

"He said she was the only woman for him," says Evelyn Wall.

"Lord have mercy, Jesus," says Conester Williams, sitting next to Wall.

The voices were pitched low at Felton Hatcher's funeral, and they were mountain-heavy.

No Peaceful Waters

Conester Williams was raised on the poor side of Bennettsville, S.C., about 25 miles from Hamlet. "My mother was a bootlegger," she says. Conester didn't make it out of high school. She left South Carolina and moved to New York City. There she worked low-end jobs. When she moved back to South Carolina in 1988, she needed a job. She went to Imperial and started at $4.75 an hour. Before long, she was singing gospel music on the chicken line, being stared into silence by supervisors, then starting right back up again as soon as they were out of sight. "We'd line those tables up. Everybody would bring something to eat," she says of lunch breaks. "Pot luck." She says the workers inside the plant -- black and white -- felt a bond: "We were like a family."

When she came home from the hospital, she was voiceless for nearly two years. Her vocal cords had been damaged. She owned guns. When friends admonished her about her depression, she had dark thoughts. "I had to get rid of all the pistols," she says. "You couldn't say the wrong thing to me."

She had to borrow money. She had to borrow food. Lawsuits were winding their way through the courts. Sleep was fitful. "You'd go to bed, wake up and run outside with your nightgown on." It made no difference: Even in an open space she could feel trapped.

Williams's settlement was "a little over $200,000," she says. With it, she glanced toward the other end of Bennettsville, out by Lake Paul Wallace. While growing up, that part of town might as well have been the other side of Jupiter.

She bought herself a home, modest by some standards but nearly magical to her. Across the road, out her front door, Lake Paul Wallace gleams and flows.

The fall on the concrete floor in the chicken plant left her with weakened limbs. She thought it plain sad that she moved into a nice house for the first time in her life and wasn't able to walk around it free of pain. "I wish I could stand in front of government inspectors -- with this freedom of speech and all -- and say, 'I did not ask to be hurt. I was getting up every morning at 4 o'clock and going to work on time.' "

Months passed inside her house, all alone. She couldn't stand it. It was the loneliness. One day she was out riding in her car and stopped a lady on the side of the road. "I said, 'Honey, who does your hair? It looks so beautiful.' " The woman was having housing problems, so Williams took her and her children in. The lady with the beautiful hair is gone, but even now, there's still a household of five: Some relatives needed a roof and Williams said come. "My daughter fusses at me and says, 'Mama, you gotta stop taking all these people in.' I tell her I can't help it. I can't live in this whole house myself."

She grows sweet potatoes in the back yard. She's got a couple of pit bulls, one of which she doesn't quite trust. She has a throaty and sassy Pearl Bailey voice. Sometimes she'll go into Bennettsville and she'll run into friends from the old days -- those days when she lived on the harsh side of town. And she senses the resentment. "That money bought a lot of hatred for me," she says of the settlement. As often as she tried telling her friends that she was still the same Conester -- she just lived in a bigger house -- was as often as she heard doubts, insinuation. "The only difference in my life is God blessed me with a better shelter," she says, sitting in her living room. "Nothing else has changed."

She's told her doctors that despite all the prescribed medications she's on, there's nothing like a toke from a marijuana cigarette now and then to dim the pain. "I told my doctors that. I won't lie."

As lovely as Lake Paul Wallace is, as close to it as she is, Williams can't even take a stroll around it. "I get headaches when I walk around and around," she says.

Of the four guests who live with Conester Williams, one is a boy. So come morning, she has someone's arms to slip into coat sleeves.

The Echoes of Tragedy

Even before the fire, Cleo Reddick was a frail woman, timid to those who knew her. Now with the fire come and gone, summers and winters come and gone, the horror of being trampled living inside her -- "I had shoe prints from people in my chest" -- not to mention the lung and heart damage, the knee and hip surgery, she's weak as a hurt bird.

Her husband, Johnny Reddick, came to pick her up from the hospital. "I came out of the hospital on a Wednesday," she says. "I asked my husband, that Friday, to take me someplace. He said, 'Where do you want to go?' I said, 'Take me to the plant.' He said, 'You don't need to go there.' I said, 'Yes I do.' " She went, right back to Bridges Street, holding the arm of the man she married at the Bunn Chapel Baptist Church in Nashville, N.C., back on Dec. 23, 1972.

"That was the beginning of the healing process for me," she says. "I went around out back of the plant. And everyone who died in the fire just came to me."

Ghosts and grandmothers.

Reddick hasn't been able to work a day since the fire. One afternoon -- it was June 22, 1996 -- she was in her kitchen. She heard a noise and turned. Her husband had slipped out on the front porch, shotgun in hand, sat down, put the tip of the barrel to his mouth and pulled the trigger. Blood flew as if from a water sprinkler. The screen in the screen door was all red.

There had been arguments about money. And: "He was a violent man," Reddick says. (Even today, co-workers talk of the heavy makeup she wore to cover her bruises.) "But I understood him," she says in a voice absent indictment.

As recently as a year ago, the Imperial plant structure was still standing. It became a blight, a sordid reminder. State Rep. Goodwin figured if he could have the structure declared a "public health nuisance," he could get money to have it torn down. "The reason it was a public nuisance," says Goodwin, "was because of the psychological effect: Many of the survivors lived within 100 yards of the structure."

The building, where Phil Dawkins and 24 others died, was bulldozed just last year.

Dawkins, the snack deliveryman, had a son and namesake, Phil Dawkins Jr. It was the son, a member of the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department, who pulled his father's body out of the Imperial plant.

That would have been the same Phil Junior who was arrested in 1994, and later convicted in the brutal murder of his young wife, Wendy, who had been found in the Pee Dee River. Many looked at the murder and allowed it to take them back to the fire and smoke. A son reaching through the rubble. Death in the wind. Now, ghosts everywhere.

Scratching Out a Living

The hero wears a ponytail. He's got jet-black hair. The night of the fire, he went home. Kay, his wife, fixed him something to eat. He lay down after supper. He got up and went to the bathroom "and started spitting up soot," remembers Kay.

Other things started coming up from his insides. He was rushed to the hospital.

There was one month-long period when he had no movement in his legs. Seven disks were ruptured in his back. It was the damage from the drop kick to the door.

The year before Bobby Quick started at Imperial, he was a self-employed yardman. He made $7,000 in 1990. "I had about 15 yards," he says.

It wasn't long after the fire, when the lawyers came in, when statements started getting made, that Quick had to talk about -- over and over -- his actions in the fire. He got $8,000 in his first settlement. He cried.

"I didn't want to sign off on that," he says -- but he needed the money.

The hero and his wife went on food stamps waiting for an equitable settlement. They hauled pine straw. He felt folks were questioning his bravery inside the plant.

"He'd wake me up at 4 in the morning and think he had to go to work still," Kay says of her husband.

In the aftermath of the fire, funds were raised for the survivors, a total of $300,000. Many survivors complained about the distribution of the money. "All we seen was food -- or food vouchers to get food," says Bobby Quick. "A church in Charlotte -- Church of Latter-day Saints -- sent me $800."

Cleo Reddick would run into Quick in the aftermath of the fire. "Why didn't you let me die, Bobby?" she asked once.

"And," says Quick, "I said, 'Because you a pretty lady, and too many pretty ladies died there.' "

Quick is seated at the Golden Corral restaurant on Highway 74 in Rockingham, the town adjacent to Hamlet. A heap of food sits before him. He has been talking for 30 minutes. He hasn't touched a bite.

Quick got up one day at home and was agitated. That trapped feeling. He wanted to leave the house. But there was something with the locks, and he put his arm through a closed window. Three hundred stitches, 500 staples. Off to Pinehurst: "He stayed in a mental ward for about a week," says Kay.

He'd be out playing catch with his son, and he'd crumple right to the ground. A man folding up on himself. It was the back, the disks. "The worst thing about it all is I couldn't get out and enjoy my son," says Quick. "It took away the time of a father watching his son growing up, what with all me going back and forth to the hospital."

He was put on Valium. The nightmares were awful. Those young grandmothers -- not the ones he saved, the ones he couldn't.

He and his wife were forced to spend the $10,000 they had saved to buy a house while waiting on his settlement money.

Quick fired one set of lawyers, got a lawyer in Charlotte. But that lawyer seemed to be going nowhere, so he went back to his original lawyers.

The hero has never been feted. At least not in the state of North Carolina. Quick used to do yard work for "a white lady over in Bennettsville, name of Ann Haney" -- who recommended him for an award. But it would be given by Bennettsville. That was in 1991. He got a small plaque. It says: "Marlboro County Rescue Squad. Life Saving Act. 1991. The Berry-Belcher Award. Bobby Quick."

"If I'd of been a white man," the hero says, chewing on that bone, "they'd of put a statue of me up downtown."

Quick still sees a psychologist. It galled him that he had to fight for his share of the settlement money. "Gotta have somebody to understand what I went through," he says of the psychologist.

The hero lives on the outskirts of Rockingham, in a mobile home that sits up off the earth. He's walking around his yard, pointing to his dogs, the land all around him. "I'm a deep country boy," Quick says.

In 1998, Quick finally got a decent insurance settlement, bringing his total to $160,000. "I put me a porch on," he says. "I got me a truck there."

His back yard is a sight. The one-time yardman, the man who finally got the house he was saving for even though he sleeps in it with pain, the man who flung his body perpendicular to a door to get those dying women out of a chicken plant as fire and smoke raged around him, Bobby Quick, the man who lost two cousins in the Imperial plant fire, has a coop in his back yard.

Bobby Quick, one of the little people, raises chickens.

� 2002 The Washington Post Company