September 1991 – 25 years ago

3 September 1991 – The Hamlet grease fire disaster

Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina was owned by Emmet Roe. The former single story ice cream factory consisted of a maze of rooms totalling about 2,800 square metres.

There were three fires at the Imperial Foods plant prior to September 1991, but no action was taken to improve safety. The company’s poor safety record included violations at their Pennsylvania plant. Their plant in Georgia had two major fires; one in 1989 caused $1.2 million dollars worth of damage.

Over the previous eleven years, there were no safety inspections at the Hamlet plant. A poultry inspector who visited the factory daily was aware of the fire risks but never reported it. Emergency doors were padlocked from the outside and there were no fire alarms or sprinkler systems in the building. Many of the employees were concerned about the locked and blocked doors but did not voice their concerns for fear of losing their jobs.

September 1991 - 25 years ago
The cooker where the fire started. Note the heavy damage to the metal roof girders, testimony to the extreme heat of the fire.

On the morning of Tuesday, 3 September 1991, a fire broke out at the Hamlet plant when the 7.6 metre deep frying vat spontaneously ignited. The fire spread rapidly creating vast amounts hydrocarbon charged smoke.

Some of the employees working near the front entrance of the building were able to escape through the unlocked door there but many others were trapped inside attempting to break down the various locked doors.

Emergency response was delayed because the phones in the building could not be used. The owner’s son had to drive to the fire station to raise the alarm. To add to the disaster, the Fire Chief refused the assistance of a nearby fire department at Dobbins. He was later accused of being racially prejudice as the Dobbins fire department that was only five minutes away consisted of African-American volunteers, and most of the Imperial Foods employees were also black.

Of the 90 employees at the Hamlet plant that day, 25 died and 56 others injured. Many of those injured were to die early due to the effects of the toxic smoke. It was later reported the fire department had only two oxygen tanks at the scene to help with those with smoke-inhalation.

Within 24 house of the Hamlet fire, Imperial Foods’ Georgia plant was inspected by Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The conditions there were similar to those at Hamlet. The plant was immediately shut down.

Emmet Roe, his son Brad and the plant manager James Hair was charged with involuntary manslaughter. In a plea bargain Emmet Roe pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter as he had personally ordered the doors to be locked from the outside. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison of which he served less than four. As part of the bargain, charges against Brad Roe and James Hair were dropped.



September 1991 – Other events

September 1991 - 25 years ago
Naturalistic reconstruction of Ötzi – South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (2011). Photo credit by Thilo Parg (CC BY-SA 3.0)

6 September – Saint Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia. It was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 and was renamed Petrograd in 1914. Ten years later the name changed again; this time to Leningrad. On 6 September 1991 it reverted back to Saint Petersburg.

19 September – Ötzi the Iceman was discovered by German tourists Helmut and Erika Simon in the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian–Italian border. The well preserved mummy is of a man who lived around 5,300 years ago. It appears he was involved in a violent altercation which ultimately caused his death.

21 September – Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, only European and South American national basketball teams were permitted to field professional players. In 1989 international basketball’s governing body allowed professional NBA players to participate at the Olympics. This opened the door for the US team in at the Barcelona Games in 1992. On 21 September 1991, the US selected their squad – the Dream Team. In 1996, 10 of the 12 players that played in Barcelona were listed among the “50 greatest NBA players of All Time.”

22 September – The bulk of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered between 1946 and 1956 in the caves at Qumran were controversially held back from publication for decades. They were under control by a small group of scholars but facsimile edition to the scrolls was published by the Biblical Archaeology Society in 1991.

September 1991 - 25 years ago



September 1991 – Music, movies, books and TV

September 1991 - 25 years ago
Miles Davis – Photo credit: Tom Palumbo (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bryan Adams was still at the top of most music charts in September 1991 with “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You, but Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and Salt and Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” were also up there.

The month also saw the passing of music great, Miles Davis, one of the most influential musicians of all time. He died on 28 September 1991. He was only 65.

Another death 25 years ago was that of legendary film director, Frank Capra. His 1934 film “It All Happened One Night” was the first movie to be awarded all of the top five Oscars for the year. His impressive resume included “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”. Capra died of a heart attack in his sleep on 3 September 1991 at the age of 94.

At the movies in September 1991 people were queuing to see “Freddy’s Dead”, the sixth of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series; Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in “Fisher King”; and the thriller, “Dead Again”.

Another death in September 1991 was that of Theodor Geisel better known as Dr. Seuss. The writer and illustrator of some of the most well read children’s books of all time died of oral cancer on September 24 at the age of 87.

At the top of the Bestsellers List 25 years ago were Tom Clancy’s “Sum of All Fears”, John Grisham’s “The Firm”, Sidney Sheldon’s “Dooms Day Conspiracy” and Anne Tyler’s “Saint Maybe”.

September 1991 - 25 years ago September 1991 - 25 years ago September 1991 - 25 years ago September 1991 - 25 years ago

As for TV, the world saw the debut of “The Jerry Springer Show” on 30 September 1991. Considered by many to be of bad taste, the show has still survived 25 years.



I recently decided to sell my vacuum cleaner, all it was doing was gathering dust”