Two workers died when an explosion tore through a Slim Jim meat products plant in North Carolina Tuesday, punching holes in the building’s roof and blowing employees off their feet.
The explosion critically burned four people and one worker was still unaccounted for Tuesday night. More than 40 others were taken to hospitals, including three firefighters who needed medical attention after inhaling ammonia gases that left a distinct scent around the sprawling ConAgra Foods Inc plant just south of Raleigh.
The blast collapsed an exterior wall, smashing cars parked next to the 46,450-square-metre building.
Authorities could not say where in the plant the blast happened or what caused it, but some of the more than 300 workers on duty said chaos and panic followed the explosion.
“I was getting ready to pick up a piece of meat off the line and I felt it -- the percussion. And you could feel it in my chest and my ears popped,” said worker Chris Woods. “One of the guys I was working with got blown back -- his hat flew backwards.”
Crews searched for three missing workers through the day. Earlier, authorities said searchers had spotted one person but weren’t sure if the worker was alive. One of the bodies found in the rubble was of that person.
Wake County Emergency Medical Services district chief Jeffrey Hammerstein couldn’t explain how the second body was discovered. He also said one of the dead was a woman.
Searchers were in part relying on cameras and listening equipment. They were also concerned because the building was unstable, and the bodies were not immediately removed.
ConAgra spokesman Dave Jackson said someone called the plant over the weekend and threatened to start a fire. He said company officials don’t believe the threat was connected to the explosion, but Garner Police Sgt Joe Binns would not say whether police think there is a link.
“I don’t want to go in that direction right now,” Binns said. “We’re focused on the rescue, not the investigation.”
Four people were in critical condition at UNC Hospitals with burns covering between 40 percent 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.”
Marilyn Eddinger, a spokeswoman for WakeMed, said its hospital in Raleigh saw 24 patients, with 16 discharged, six admitted and two sent to other hospitals. They were treated for broken bones, bruises and burns consistent with blast injuries. Dozens more were taken to other area hospitals.
The Environmental Protection Agency was on scene to monitor the air but officials said there was no threat to people who live near the plant.
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.
ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the company will continue to pay its Garner employees indefinitely.
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.