On the morning of Sept. 3, 1991, as workers returned from the Labor Day holiday, a huge grease fire tore through a chicken-processing plant in remote Hamlet, N.C., near the South Carolina line. Employees rushed through the chaos to escape but were blocked by locked exit doors. Twenty-five people died.

That day, the state revealed that none of its workplace safety inspectors had ever visited the Imperial Food Products plant in its 11 years of operation.

The tragedy, and the government’s laissez-faire approach, reverberated across the country, with prominent coverage by The New York Times, CNN and other national news outlets.

Congress conducted hearings and promised reform. “Let’s make the guarantee of a safer workplace for all Americans the legacy of the Hamlet victims,” U.S. Rep. William Ford, a Michigan Democrat who chaired the Education and Labor Committee, said as he opened an unusually well-attended hearing nine days after the fire.

It remained a political touchpoint through the 1992 Democratic National Convention, as the Reverend Jesse Jackson told the nation, “If we work together, and if we keep Hamlet, North Carolina, in our hearts and before our eyes, we will act to empower working people.”

Three decades have passed and memories have faded. While the deaths led to a reassessment of the state’s emaciated safety program and the hiring of dozens of new workplace inspectors, the reform momentum prompted by the fire is long gone. An Assembly review of 30 years of workplace safety data in North Carolina shows that several key indicators are moving in the wrong direction, making this a fraught time for the state’s workers.

In the last decade in North Carolina, inspections of non-construction worksites are down by more than half. Twenty-five percent of the state’s 114 workplace inspector jobs are vacant, state Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson told The Assembly, well above the state government vacancy rate of 14.5 percent.

The number of workplace fatalities in the state has steadily increased during the last six years, rising to its highest level in almost two decades, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wayne Goodwin is among those who fear the state’s amnesia about the Hamlet fire will have consequences. The Hamlet native and former chairman of the state Democratic Party represented the area in the state House for four terms and then served as state insurance commissioner and fire marshal from 2009 to 2016.

“The data suggest the lessons were briefly learned and now they are being unlearned or being allowed to fade into memory,” he told The Assembly. “I’m saddened but not surprised … We can do better than this. We cannot have another tragedy like this in Hamlet or any other town. We’re still feeling the aftershocks from 1991.”

At one federal agency, the lessons of Hamlet never took root.

While a state safety inspector had never visited the Imperial building, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food-safety inspectors were there every day to check on the quality of the chicken—and even approved locking a door to keep flies out. Politicians of both parties were aghast that a government inspector would endorse locking an exit door, which violated state and federal law.

USDA, which said it had no responsibility for workplace safety, relented under pressure. In early 1994, it signed an agreement saying its inspectors would be trained to report “serious workplace hazards affecting plant employees.” USDA inspectors were to report the hazards to their bosses, who would report them to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

But that never happened. In the 27 years since the agreement was signed, The Assembly has found no evidence that USDA has ever forwarded a written complaint involving worker safety anywhere in the nation to OSHA.

One of the principal lessons of the Hamlet tragedy—that government inspectors of all types should be trained to recognize and report serious safety hazards—was largely disregarded.

The Reverend Tommy Legrand, pastor at Prayer and Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in South Hamlet, is a former street preacher who willed his way to success. He served in the Army and has been a stock clerk, a dock worker, a salesman, a truck driver, and a businessman. Decades after he started preaching, he drove back and forth to Raleigh to earn his master of divinity degree from Shaw University at age 72.

His first church didn’t have running water or heat. Now his tidy church campus encompasses five buildings, including one that is home to the local Head Start program and another that houses the church’s food bank. Legrand is so well regarded that Hamlet, a city of about 6,000, named the adjacent road T.R. Legrand Street.

Pastor Tommy Legrand in the sanctuary of his church, Prayer and Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Hamlet, N.C. // Photo by Logan Cyrus

After the fire, Legrand counseled survivors and pushed for years to have the charred Imperial plant torn down. The now-grassy site includes a monument to the 25 who died, the 54 who were injured, and the 49 children who were orphaned.

Legrand, at 82, remains a spark plug of a man. “Thank you for the gift of life!” he said to his congregation on a recent Sunday morning, as they assembled outdoors to protect against COVID-19.

The congregation, backed by a drummer and keyboardist, sang the gospel song, “Look Where He Brought Me From.”

Save my soul from the burning hell yes he did Brought me out of darkness To the marvelous light

With the temperature on its way to 90 degrees, Legrand urged his flock to a tent set up in front of him, a kind of improvised outdoor altar call. Among those walking, slowly and with assistance, was Annette Zimmerman, 55, a survivor of the Imperial Food Products fire.

On that morning in September 1991, Zimmerman, then a single mother with two young children, was saved, barely, from the burning hell.

Zimmerman was on the deboning line—not her usual job—for about 15 minutes when she heard the first screams. She didn’t make much of it; from time to time, snakes slithered into the plant, prompting screams. But then Zimmerman opened a partition and saw plant workers running toward her, with a black ball of fire hot on their heels.

A hydraulic line had broken near a deep-fat fryer. The spilled fluid caught fire, igniting what the U.S. Fire Administration described as a fast-moving fireball with heavy, black, hydro-carbon-charged smoke so intense that it could disable a person in one or two breaths.

Zimmerman froze. The lights went out, pitching that windowless section of the plant into darkness. Then they flickered on and off a few times before going off for good.

About 90 employees were in the plant, rushing to get out. Zimmerman fell and was trampled. A group of her co-workers headed to a door, but it was locked. They held hands and prayed in the darkness.

Top: Annette Zimmerman at the former site of the Imperial Foods chicken-processing plant in Hamlet, N.C.; Bottom: Zimmerman points to an inscription on a memorial to those who died or were injured in the plant fire. “This was the worst day of my life,” she said // Photos by Logan Cyrus

Zimmerman went to another room but there was no way out, so she circled back to the locked door. To avoid the smoke, some people were going into a nearby cooler, but something told Zimmerman not to go in. She told The Assembly the last thing she remembered was being on the floor, near the cooler.

Eventually, some workers made their way out, doors were unlocked, and firefighters made their way in. Someone carried Zimmerman out.

Investigators concluded that 12 people died in the cooler. Three others were found dead just outside it. If the plant had a sprinkler system, an evacuation plan, and marked, unblocked doors, investigators said there would have been few or no fatalities. At least two of the plant’s seven exit doors had been locked. All 25 deaths were caused by smoke inhalation.

Among other injuries, Zimmerman’s lungs were damaged. She spent several days in the hospital, was released for a while, then returned for a month. She had two surgeries on her back and four on her neck; X-rays show rods and stabilizers. She might have another neck surgery this year.

In the first decade after the fire, she said she had four stays in psychiatric hospitals. She still doesn’t like crowds and the smell of smoke triggers memories of the fire. She said she is in pain every day.

She was a young woman then; now she’s deep into middle age. Some people ask her when she’s going to get over it. “You tell me how long it takes you to get over it when you’re stepped on and the people around you die,” she said. “You weren’t there. When you actually took part in it, it never goes away.”

Pastor Tommy Legrand hugs Annette Zimmerman after a church service in Hamlet, N.C. // Photo by Logan Cyrus

She and her husband drive past the old plant site every Sunday on their way to church. She took a computer class at the community college and was a part-time legal secretary for 20 years. She’s worked at Pic N Pay Shoes and at Wal-Mart but can no longer work outside her home.

“Imperial might have broken my body,” she said from a padded chair in her home, as she reviewed some of her X-rays on her iPad. “But it didn’t break my spirit.”

She’s been the volunteer director of her church’s food pantry for nearly 20 years. “Annette—she’s been a miracle,” said Legrand, her pastor. “I don’t know if she’s had a whole good week of health” since the fire, he said, but she pushes on.

As time passes, survivors of the fire die and memories of the tragedy are diminished. “Many of them feel like they’ve been forgotten,” Legrand said. “I want [people] to remember these were poor people trying to make a decent living.”

I was a reporter in the Raleigh bureau of The Charlotte Observer when I first heard about the fire. It was a few hours into the workday, on Sept. 3, 1991, and I was assigned to quickly assess the safety record of the Imperial plant in Hamlet. The record was limited, because the plant had never been inspected.

The state Labor Department had about 45 inspectors to monitor 150,000 businesses. North Carolina ranked last in the nation, with less than half of the minimum number of inspectors called for under federal guidelines.

The state conducted random inspections, but Imperial had never received one. A few other conditions could trigger an inspection—an on-the-job death or an employee complaint—but those had not occurred.

“Our current [inspection] program is what you’d expect to find for maybe a small county in North Carolina, and we’re trying to cover the whole state,” said John Brooks, who was the state labor commissioner at the time. North Carolina is one of about 25 states that runs its workplace inspection program instead of federal OSHA.

Buildings can be seen in downtown at sunset in Hamlet, N.C. // Photo by Logan Cyrus

Early the next morning, I drove to Hamlet to report from the scene. Someone showed me an exit door that was locked when the fire erupted. Footprints were visible on the inside of the door, as desperate workers fought with everything they had to survive.

Employees and neighbors mingled around the quiet, charred plant, consoling each other and whispering information about those killed and injured. The summer air, hot by late morning, was heavy with loss. It was the beginning of a long period of grief that, for some, continues today.

For me, the Hamlet fire was an awakening. I grew up in suburban Raleigh in a subdivision of white-collar parents, many of whom worked at Research Triangle Park, as my father did. I wasn’t clueless about manual labor; I had worked part-time jobs in high school and college, including a summer in an ice factory, bagging, carrying and stacking ice in trucks six days a week.

We bundled in sweatshirts, gloves and wool hats. It was cold, hard work, but it wasn’t dangerous. The owner was on-site every day and seemed reasonable. No doors were locked during working hours. We swept the floor to avoid slipping on stray ice. Plant veterans operated the heavy machinery.

The Imperial plant in Hamlet was different. Sprinklers, firewalls and fire-proof doors had been in use in factories since the 1880s, but the Hamlet plant was a primitive death trap that lacked those routine upgrades.

It didn’t have a fire alarm, a working sprinkler system or evacuation plan—even though a previous fire was serious enough to require a new roof. Exits weren’t marked or lighted, and there weren’t enough of them. Employees reported that doors routinely were locked during working hours. After the deadly fire, the state fined Imperial $800,000 for 83 safety violations.

A footpath can be seen through the site of the old Imperial Foods processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. The plant never re-opened, and was eventually torn down, after an industrial fire killed 25 people // Photo by Logan Cyrus

The 200 people who worked there mostly were poor and desperate. Some were so poor that the Textile Workers Union sent dresses and suits for them to be buried in. Of the 25 who died, 18 were women—many of them single mothers—and 12 were Black.

In the fall of 1991, I stayed on the story. The Charlotte Observer and News & Observer are owned by the same company now but were intense competitors then. Hamlet is roughly the same distance—about an hour and a half drive—from Charlotte and Raleigh. Both papers assigned reporters to continue reporting about the troubled plant and the people who worked there.

I made a request under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain USDA inspection reports. Unbeknown to me, Steve Riley of The N&O made a similar request.

Several weeks after my request, a package of documents arrived in the mail. I was stunned: An inspection report showed that a USDA inspector had approved the locking of an exit door to keep flies out of the building.

On the morning of Nov. 13, 1991, the state’s largest two newspapers published similar articles atop their front pages. A USDA inspector approved locking the door in June, about two and half months before the fire. In interviews, Imperial workers said the company wanted to lock doors not to keep flies out of the plant, as the company claimed, but to keep employees from stealing chicken.

“You could theorize that [the USDA inspector] shouldn’t have let the door be locked, but that’s hindsight,” said a USDA spokesman at the time. “That is asking an awful lot of an inspector whose primary job is to ensure that food is produced in a safe and sanitary manner.”

Politicians from both parties were outraged. U.S. Rep. Charlie Rose, a Democrat from Fayetteville, threatened to file a bill requiring food inspectors to check for safety. Eventually, USDA signed the agreement for its food inspectors to be trained to report serious hazards that endangered workers.

About a year after the fire, Emmett Roe, who owned Imperial Food Products, accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter. A prosecutor said Roe personally approved locking a door. He was sentenced to nearly 20 years and was released on parole after serving four years. He died in 2018.

Calvin White, who is retiring this year as Hamlet’s fire chief, was on the scene that day as a 35-year-old firefighter. White grew up in the neighborhood near the plant, worked in the building as a teenager when it was an ice-cream factory, and estimates he knew half of those who died.

“It’s something I’ve never gotten over, nor do I want to,” he said recently while seated at his office desk in the firehouse. “Those folks deserve all the respect and all the remembrance we can give them … I wish I could have saved a few more lives. That’s one I’ll take with me to my grave.”

To White, Imperial’s locking of doors showed how the operators were willing to cut corners. “People many years ago were too trusting of business owners,” he said. “These folks (at Imperial) were allowed to do what they wanted to do. In my opinion, there was covert stuff that happened at Imperial—‘When no one is watching, we can do this.’”

The Imperial plant was about a half-mile from the fire station and Imperial was a large employer in town. There had been three fires at the plant in the 1980s. Yet the Hamlet Fire Department did not regularly inspect it. White said his department now does unannounced visits, which it did not do then.

Top: A street sign for South Bridges Street is seen by the site of the old Imperial plant; Bottom: A brick at the now-empty site // Photos by Logan Cyrus

White and Goodwin, the former state insurance commissioner, both said the Hamlet tragedy led to fire-safety improvements that have continued, such as the state requiring fire-code inspections for all businesses every one, two or three years, depending on the nature of the operation.

The day after the fire, Martha Welzant, then the chief claims examiner for the state commission that handles workers’ compensation claims, volunteered to go to Hamlet to see the plant and assess the situation. She returned the following week for four agonizing days to work at a temporary victims’ assistance center at the city library.

“If I start crying,” she told me recently, “please understand, it’s very painful.”

Even today, Welzant, now 74 and living in Pennsylvania, remains a hero in Hamlet for cutting red tape to get checks to the families of victims and those disabled by the fire. She embraced the community and it embraced her. She wrote songs about the people and the tragedy, including “A Love Song to Hamlet,” and is still in touch with residents.

Like many people who saw the disaster close up, she remains sad—and angry.

“This did not have to happen,” Welzant said. “So much slipped through the cracks because bureaucracies were simply focusing on their own agendas and not the total picture and not working in tandem. It is hard to fathom that all these violations could go unnoticed.”

“All this enabled an irresponsible, uncaring employer to exploit their workers and put them at risk,” she continued. “People go to work expecting to return home when the work is completed, not stuffed in body bags or in the ICU fighting for their lives.”

When the fire struck, Abbie Covington became the public face of the community. The first-term mayor patiently answered reporters’ questions and worked with the state to ensure victims and families got the money, counseling, and services available to them. “This community completely wrapped its arms around them for a solid year,” she told me.

The day after the fire, Covington toured the plant. It had white tiles on the wall, a remnant from when ice cream was made there. She saw handprints on the tiles, as workers tried to feel their way through the dark, smokey building, and was overwhelmed by the fear they must have felt.

Covington, who taught accounting at the nearby community college for many years, is an analytical, task-oriented person. In the months after the fire, she worked to lead the city’s response, perform her teaching job, and be a wife and mother to two children.

Abbie Covington, who was serving as the mayor during the Imperial plant fire, outside city hall in Hamlet, N.C. // Photo by Logan Cyrus

She served 10 years as mayor, left city government and is now back on the city council. As we talked in the council chambers recently, she read some old newspaper articles I brought. After reading for a while, she wiped a tear.

“I tried to make my life as normal as possible for the people around me, and probably compartmentalized this more than I should have,” she said. “You try to keep things from coming unglued. I guess that’s what I did for a year.”

Covington, now 75, was recommended then for counseling but never pursued it. “It left scars I’ll never get over, that will never heal,” she said. “We’re all victims of the fire. The entire town was a victim of the fire.”

In the aftermath of the fire, the U.S. Fire Administration studied the Hamlet disaster and directly addressed USDA’s role. In the report’s “Lessons Learned” section, it recommended inspectors from various state and federal agencies be cross-trained.

“While it may not be possible to teach USDA personnel all aspects of an OSHA inspector’s responsibilities,” said the report, “certainly they could be encouraged to recognize major problems” and report them.

USDA was defensive after the tragedy, saying its responsibility was only to ensure the quality of the chicken. “We’re terribly sorry about the accident,” an agency spokesman said, “but it doesn’t fall under our responsibility at all.”

Under pressure from unions and under new management with the Clinton administration, USDA seemed to change its view. In 1994, it signed an agreement saying its food inspectors would not perform the role of safety inspectors, but they would be trained to recognize serious workplace hazards and report them to headquarters. USDA was to notify OSHA, which would contact states.

But that never happened, says Debbie Berkowitz, former OSHA chief of staff during the Obama administration. She told The Assembly that when she left in 2015, the agency had never received a complaint from USDA.

Berkowitz was involved with the agreement at several stages in her career, first in the 1990s as a union safety director, and later as a high-ranking OSHA official.

“The USDA refused to allow OSHA to train their inspectors until almost 20 years later in the second term of the Obama administration (when I was there) and only did a short training for supervisors,” Berkowitz wrote in an email.

The 1994 agreement required OSHA to record referrals from USDA, as well as information about subsequent safety inspections. The data was to be reviewed by the two agencies annually. But that data doesn’t appear to exist.

In July, The Assembly asked USDA for records that would show any referrals it had made to OSHA since the agreement was signed. USDA was unable to provide any. A lawyer for the department said food inspectors might have made complaints anonymously.

The Assembly made a similar request to OSHA and received a similar answer. It provided no records showing any referrals from USDA. It sent a database of workplace safety complaints it had received, but it did not provide information about who complained. In a footnote, it said, “This database does not contain information on whether a referral was made by [USDA].”

A spokesperson for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) contended that it was in compliance with the 1994 agreement because it was optional for its inspectors to report safety problems, and that USDA had encouraged inspectors to do so.

However, the signed agreement doesn’t support USDA’s interpretation. It says after being trained, “FSIS inspectors will report those serious workplace hazards affecting plant employees to their agency headquarters,” which would then report hazards in writing to OSHA.

A spokesperson for OSHA said the two agencies are currently renegotiating the agreement.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has twice noted that the agreement was not being met. In 2005, it urged the two agencies to do what they had agreed to do, and again in 2017 the GAO noted the lack of progress.

“According to FSIS officials, FSIS inspectors may be reluctant to make referrals to OSHA about hazards in plants because they fear it could trigger an OSHA investigation of FSIS,” the report said. FSIS, the USDA division, also said it needed to ensure that its primary mission of protecting food safety “is not compromised.”

A memorial to the 25 people killed by the Imperial plant industrial fire sits near City Lake in Hamlet, N.C. // Photo by Logan Cyrus

FSIS gave its inspectors permission in 2014 to call OSHA’s public toll-free number to report hazards. Because callers can remain anonymous, GAO said it’s impossible to know how often food inspectors have done that.

FSIS also could not show that its supervisors had shared their OSHA safety training with the food inspectors, the report said. And neither agency could explain why the required annual evaluations of the agreement had not taken place.

GAO chided the agencies for a lack of collaboration and said the terms of the agreement should be carried out. “Since FSIS is already present in many plants, the federal government is missing out on a cost-effective opportunity to further protect the safety and health of both plant workers and FSIS inspectors,” the report said.

Jim Martin, who was governor during the tragedy, had previously served 12 years in the U.S. House. “As far as the Department of Agriculture, it sounds like they didn’t learn anything,” Martin, a Republican, said in an interview with The Assembly. “Both of them [USDA and OSHA] put some nice words in the agreement and both of them went about their own business and forgot about it. Bureaucracies do today what they did yesterday, and will do tomorrow what they did today.”

U.S. Rep. David Price, the only current member of the state delegation who was in Congress during the Hamlet tragedy, supports the 1994 agreement. The Democrat from Chapel Hill said the agreement made sense when it was negotiated and still makes sense today.

“After 30 years, the tragic and avoidable Hamlet fire, with mass casualties, remains deeply disturbing,” Price said in a statement. “It seems clear that the [1994 agreement] has been largely if not completely ignored. I will be making inquiries and utilizing congressional oversight authority to secure long-deferred implementation” of the agreement.

After the fire, North Carolina’s political and agency leaders responded aggressively on several fronts.

In the two decades before 1991, the state had some of the lowest fines in the country for serious offenses—an average of $550, which ranked 47th. After Hamlet, the state Labor Department cracked down. Fines in 1992 almost doubled to more than $1,000, second-highest in the U.S., and stayed at that level for a few years.

But in five years, North Carolina returned to its lower level of fines, and ranked 43rd in the country. Since then, the state has never ranked higher than 35th.

That’s not the only area where the state flexed its enforcement muscles, only to eventually fall back.

After the fire, the state more than doubled its number of workplace inspectors to 119, and stayed at about that level till 2012. Since then, the number of inspectors has fallen. The state now has 86 inspectors on the job with another 28 positions unfilled, said Dobson, the labor commissioner.

Dobson, a Republican from McDowell County who was elected to the post in 2020, succeeded Cherie Berry, who had been commissioner for 20 years. Dobson said his department is working hard to fill the vacant jobs. “If there’s anything that keeps me up at night, that’s it,” he said. “Everything we do is important, but what our compliance officers do is most important.”

The jobs, which have entry-level salaries in the $46,000 to $48,000 range, don’t pay enough, he said. He’s offering signing bonuses of $3,000 and has asked legislators to raise pay for the inspectors by 9.4 percent this year; that money isn’t in the House or Senate budget, but Dobson hopes it can be addressed during ongoing negotiations.

He said he is focused on filling the vacancies, and then he will consider asking the legislature to fund more inspector jobs. “I’m never going to say we have enough compliance officers,” he said.

Source: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Source: U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration

After Hamlet, the number of non-construction inspections increased and peaked at about 3,000 in 2009. But that amount has fallen by more than half in the last decade, even as the numbers of workers and worksites have grown.

The state’s injury rate has consistently fallen since the Hamlet fire, and its workplace fatality rate was also in decline. But since 2013, the number of fatalities and the fatality rate steadily have increased, according to federal data. In 2019, the last year the federal data is available, the state had 186 workplace deaths, the most in almost 20 years.

Dobson focuses on a narrower measure of workplace fatalities that excludes deaths outside the purview of his inspectors, such as on-the-job traffic accidents. That measure also shows an upward trend that resulted in the most deaths in 2020 in more than a decade.

The U.S. Fire Administration’s report on Hamlet listed as No. 1 in the “Lessons Learned” section, “Life safety codes must be enforced … Enforcement is [as] essential as the code requirements themselves.”

Berkowitz, the former OSHA official now at the nonprofit National Employment Law Project, keeps on her bookcase a blackened wall tile from the Imperial plant. It was given to her by a survivor.

“Sadly, though there was some progress in worker safety following this stunning tragedy, especially in the meat and poultry industry,” she said, “I think things have back-slided.”

In March 1911 in New York, 146 workers—most of them young immigrant women—died when a fire destroyed Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a building in Manhattan. Doors were locked and a rickety fire escape collapsed. A fire truck’s ladder didn’t reach high enough. Many of the women died leaping from the building. The disaster led to a slew of workplace safety protections that became part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

There are similarities between the New York and Hamlet fires, historian Bryant Simon wrote in his definitive 2017 book, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives. But Simon says the Hamlet fire didn’t lead to the lasting reform that the New York fire did, and that the workplace safety data from recent years provides further evidence of that.

“The post-Hamlet reforms, however well intentioned, did not change the structure in NC,” he wrote in an email. “It didn’t fundamentally change the conversation in the state or the nation. It didn’t make us see the world in a different way. It did not really bring the people who do the dirty work … into view. It didn’t change these lives on the shop floor. It didn’t involve a fundamental shift in spending or priorities.”

Of the survivors, nobody was more injured than Mildred Moates, who was 48 years old and put chicken breasts on shackles in the trim room for $5.15 an hour.

Like many of the workers, she struggled to find a way out of the darkened plant. She was found, unconscious and trampled, with her face covered in black soot, in the marinating and mixing room. She was taken to Hamlet Hospital in “very critical” condition, and then flown to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

She survived, but had severe brain damage. She could no longer read and could speak only simple sentences. She was legally blind. She couldn’t hold a fork or spoon, couldn’t write her name, and couldn’t dress herself. She walked with leg braces or used a wheelchair. She had little control over her bladder. She had frequent crying spells and hallucinations. She needed constant care.

Her husband, to whom she’d been married for 28 years, had a heart attack the day after the fire and was permanently disabled. He had worked as a security guard.

Their lawyer, Woody Gunter, became a friend and trusted ally. “That lady was so sweet,” said Gunter, a Hamlet native who is retiring after nearly 50 years of practicing law in the neighboring city of Rockingham. Her husband was her constant companion and caregiver; Gunter said they were comforted by each other’s presence.

Woodrow “Woody” Gunter at his law office in downtown Rockingham, N.C. Gunter represented some of the victims of the Imperial plant fire // Photos by Logan Cyrus

By state law, survivors such as Moates received two-thirds of their weekly pay in worker’s compensation for as long as they were disabled. Given that most of the workers made about $5 an hour, that didn’t amount to much.

The survivors and families of those who died also sued various parties, including Imperial, which shut down and went into bankruptcy. Settlements in the injury cases from Imperial’s insurers ranged from $2,500 to more than $1 million for Moates.

Gunter secured other settlements for Moates. One took years to negotiate. In the meantime, Moates’ husband had died, and in 2015 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which likely went untreated for months because of her inability to communicate.

When the last settlement was final in September 2015, Gunter drove to Charlotte to pick up the check, and raced to hospice in Rockingham so Moates could see the check and endorse it, which she did by touching the pen as Gunter wrote her name. Then he rushed to the bank to deposit the check in her account. She died that night.

A picture of Woodrow “Woody” Gunter and Mildred Moates, his client and a survivor of the Imperial Foods fire, sits on his desk at his law office in downtown Rockingham, N.C. // Photo by Logan Cyrus

John Drescher, The Assembly’s contributing editor, is former executive editor of The News & Observer and a former editor at The Washington Post. Follow him @john_drescher. Reach him at jdrescher@theassemblync.com

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