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Workers recall chaos after N.C. plant blast

Survivors of an explosion at a Slim Jim snack factory in North Carolina describe a scene of chaos following the blast. Crews recover three bodies.
Image: Search crews at N.C. ConAgra plant
The Raleigh Fire Department hazmat team prepares to enter the ConAgra Foods processing plant on Tuesday. Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

A dazed Harold Harris looked up and saw the roof of the Slim Jim snack factory falling down. The doorway was buried in debris. People were crying and screaming.

The 40-year-old managed to crawl out of the building after it was rocked by an explosion, but not everyone could: Search teams would pull the bodies of three of his coworkers from the unstable wreckage on Wednesday.

"Just imagine a Category 5 hurricane that hit in a split second," Harris said, recalling Tuesday's chaos. He had been cleaning a pickling vat when he was thrown against the wall.

"I dug my way out of a small hole in the doorway," said Harris, who ended up with bruises on his leg and sore eyes and lungs from exposure to ammonia. "To get out I had to crawl out."

The recovery of the bodies provided a grim conclusion for families waiting to learn the fate of the missing. Authorities said they had accounted for everyone at the plant, but they continued scouring the unstable building and smashed cars outside to be sure no one else was in the rubble.

"They will continue to search through the rest of the building, and once that building search is complete, then the search and rescue and recovery efforts will come to a conclusion," Garner Police Sgt. Chris Clayton said. "We feel comfortable ... that the people that were at the plant have now been accounted for."

Authorities identified the dead as Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn; Rachel Mae Poston Pulley, 67, and Lewis Junior Watson, 33, both of Clayton. Authorities said two of them were found near each other while a third was several hundred feet away.

Connie Smith, 43, of Smithfield, said he had been holding out hope that his cousin, Watson, was still alive until he heard from officials Wednesday afternoon.

"He's not suffering any more," Smith said. "He's with the Lord now."

Cause under investigation
The explosion ripped through the 500,000-square-foot ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Garner while 300 people were at work. Officials said 38 employees were injured and three firefighters were treated for inhaling ammonia fumes and released.

Authorities have declined to discuss the possible causes of the blast. They've been cautiously approaching the scene due to an ammonia leak that occurred when the 34,000-gallon ammonia refrigeration system ruptured in the aftermath of the blast.

Doctors were closely monitoring four people in critical condition, concerned that complications could arise for the patients, who had burns covering 40 percent to 60 percent of their bodies.

"These are life-threatening injuries for weeks and months," said Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at the UNC Medical Center. "And it's a very dynamic thing. Somebody can be doing well today and not tomorrow — that's why it's such a challenge."

Anthony McLean, 38, the brother of Spears, told The Associated Press that she worked at the plant for about 15 years, most recently in the cutting department.

"I knew she was a victim when I went to ConAgra and she didn't get off the bus," McLean said. "I knew something was wrong with my sister at that time. No one could tell us what hospital she was in or anything."

Fund for victims' families
ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin said the company was putting money into a fund to help the families of victims. He said the company's hope is to rebuild, but cautioned that there were many aspects to work through.

"We're starting the process of identifying what happened," Rodkin said. "Our goal is to make sure nothing like this happens again."

Authorities could not say where in the plant the blast happened or what caused it.

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.

The plant was last inspected by the North Carolina Department of Labor for workplace safety last July and no violations were found, department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry said. The plant had violations in previous years, including a fine in 2007 for problems with eye and face protection equipment.

ConAgra spokesman Dave Jackson has said someone called the plant over the weekend and threatened to start a fire, but authorities said Wednesday they knew of no link between the call and the blast.