N.C. open-records delay stymies historian researching 1991 Hamlet fire

From NC Policy Watch

By Sarah Ovaska

A Temple University professor wants to hear what survivors of a 1991 fatal fire at Hamlet’s Imperial Foods plant said to labor department investigators for a book he’s writing about what was and still is the state’s worst industrial fire.

But Bryant Simon’s June 2011 request to look at the witness accounts of the fire that killed 25, including many workers whose bodies were near locked exit doors, has been pending at the N.C. Department of Labor for nearly a year and a half.

“There’s no other way to get this information if you’re a historian,” Simon said. “Hamlet was now 21 years ago and there’s virtually no records available.”

Simon plans on writing a book about the culture of cheapness that surrounded the plant – the fast-food chicken tenders the workers were making out of chicken, the low pay worker’s received and the shortcuts taken around labor laws. The voices of the surviving workers that spoke to the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators are key to his work, and his research has been held up without them, Simon said.

“The forces that are shaping our own lives blow up in Hamlet,” said Simon, who was attending graduate school in 1991 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s an early indicator of the world we’re living in now that’s build around the idea of cheap.”


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