Image: Collapsed roof
Thomas Babb  /  The News & Observer via AP
Part of the roof of this meat products plant in Garner, N.C., collapsed on Tuesday after an explosion.
updated 6/9/2009 9:56:22 PM ET 2009-06-10T01:56:22

A blast at a meat products plant Tuesday blew workers off their feet, ripped the building's roof off its supports, killing two people and critically burning four others.

Dozens 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 explosion left gaping holes in the roof. An exterior wall collapsed, smashing cars parked next to the 500,000-square-foot (152,000-meter) building.

Police said they have found the bodies of two people in the rubble.  Garner Police Sgt. Joe Binns said Tuesday night that the bodies have not yet been recovered.

Binns said the search continues for a third person believed to have been inside. 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 Jim beef jerkey.

Workers described chaos
Throughout the day, crew searched for the missing workers who had been at the plant in the morning, said Frank McLaurin, a battalion chief with North Carolina Task Force 8 Urban Search-and-Rescue. Their bodies weren't found until later Tuesday. Crews relied on cameras and listening equipment as thunderstorms delayed the search. They were also concerned because the building was unstable.

Some of the more than 300 workers on duty described chaos after the explosion. Authorities could not say exactly where in the plant the blast happened or what caused it.

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.

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.

Blast injuries among workers
Debbie Laughery, a spokeswoman for WakeMed, said its hospitals in Raleigh and Cary were treating 17 patients, including two in serious condition, for broken bones, bruises and burns consistent with blast injuries. She said some complained of burning in their throats.

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, which is located between Interstate 40 and a subdivision but mostly surrounded by large buffers of trees.

Crews kept people away from the site as smoke puffed through holes in the damaged roof early in the day.

ConAgra, which has 25,000 employees worldwide, makes brands like Chef Boyardee, Hunt's tomato sauce, ACT II popcorn and Hebrew National hot dogs.

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