Explosion and Collapse At North Carolina Food-Processing Plant

At approximately 11:27 A.M. on Tuesday, June 9, 2009, an explosion ripped through the 425,000-square-foot ConAgra Foods Inc. processing plant in Garner, NC. The facility is the sole source of Slim Jim snack foods for the company product line. The initial blast collapsed approximately 15,000 square feet of the product packaging area, which was built in 1994, and partially collapsed another 5,000 to 8,000 square feet wherein the framework was damaged, but the roof membrane held. One wall cantilevered outward, crushing nearby vehicles, and the roofs of tractor-trailers at the loading dock were bent upward by the force. Employee cars that were buried by debris were just one of many challenges to victim accountability presented by this incident. In addition, plumbing for the refrigeration system used in the processing of the Slim Jim snacks ruptured, creating a significant ammonia release. In-plant fire protection systems were also rendered useless.

Fifteen 911 calls were received in quick succession by the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center from employees and passersby advising of multiple injuries, including burns. The initial response consisted of Garner Fire-Rescue and the Raleigh Fire Department, Garner Police Department and Wake County EMS. As it turned out, accurate information concerning the cause of the explosion was provided by at least one of the callers, but this would not be confirmed until the later investigation.

Garner Fire-Rescue is a combination department with 75 members under the command of Chief Phil Mitchell. The department responds out of three stations (a fourth is under construction) with five engines, two pumper-tankers, two tankers, two rescue trucks, one 100-foot platform, two brush/first-responder rigs and four administrative vehicles.

The incident occurred on a relatively straight, two-lane stretch of Jones Sausage Road that runs between Rock Quarry Road and U.S. Highway 70. Traffic control was established at these intersections by local police with assistance from the Wake County Sheriff's Office and North Carolina Highway Patrol. Upon arrival, first-in units found numerous injuries, and immediately turned their attention to rendering care, quickly summoning additional resources to deal with the collapse, search and subsequent fire. One experienced medical officer described the early scene as, "a cross between a soccer stadium disaster and a horror movie." Initial responders were immediately overrun by victims. Some still had smoldering clothing. At least one was carried by co-workers on a stretcher improvised from a pallet.

Mutual aid from the Raleigh Fire Department responded, including a hazardous materials team and other special units, as did NC Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force 8 containing members from Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill and tactical paramedics from Wake County EMS. Since the size of the structure and visible damage made it apparent that these special teams would quickly be required, the first USAR unit was requested within 10 minutes of the initial alarm, with all regional resources notified and enroute by 12:09. While fire was not initially an issue, dense, black smoke began to issue through the roof. Interior crews were dispatched to investigate, and found that the fire was limited to a pallet and contents that had apparently been ignited by the initial explosion. It was quickly extinguished, and focus was returned to the search and rescue, and ultimately to the recovery mode.

The weather impacted several areas of the operation. Temperatures in the low 90s created the need for rehabilitating both emergency crews and plant workers who remained on the scene. The heat was particularly onerous for USAR personnel who had to conduct search missions while wearing hazmat gear. This entire portion of the operation was carried out by team members wearing Class B protection. Later in the afternoon, a thunderstorm passed directly over the area, creating nearby lightning strikes and depositing additional weight on already precarious areas of the roof. One lightning strike hit a water tower on the ConAgra property, just next to the factory.

USAR operations were also complicated by the unusual challenges presented. While most shoring plans and equipment were geared upon the securing of smaller voids, here much of the building framework in the affected area was on the ground or 15 feet in the air. Engineers made constant observations of the stability of the building. In addition to the major collapse zone, there were two other locations where portions of the roof caved in.

The triage area was set up more by conditions than by design. As previously discussed, first responders were greeted by a wave of injured people. Rather than attempt to relocate these wounded, triage began in a location that might not have otherwise been chosen. As the incident developed, ammonia fumes became noticeable at both the command post and in triage; however, all critically injured were transported from the scene during the first hour, and the triage area was effectively cleared. Additional, less critical patients were transported later in the event, but some of these came after secondary screening occurred at the Garner Senior Center. This facility had been established as a gathering place for displaced employees who were all identified prior to being placed on Capital Area Transit buses for the short trip there. This identification process proved invaluable as both an investigative tool for cause and origin, and as an accountability check against company records of on-duty workers. Many ConAgra employees left their keys and wallets inside the building when they evacuated, and some vehicles had to be towed from the area. The company later provided locksmith services to those who needed them.

The ammonia refrigerant was eventually neutralized through the use of a built-in system that allowed discharging it into a containment pond onsite. As a precaution, communities downstream were notified prior to this action in order to ensure drinking water purity in case of an escapement. Additional retention ponds were dug onsite to assist in the neutralization process, and no contaminated water escaped the property, although some vegetation on-site was damaged. Despite the release of ammonia, there was no decontamination required for patients as it became clear early on that this was not a factor in their injuries.

During the course of the event, more than 200 employees had to be evacuated, including 38 who were injured. The scene was cleared of victims inside the first hour. Fifty-eight agencies operated on the scene. Garner Fire Chief Phil Mitchell, District Fire Chief Allen Dudley (who was the incident commander), Deputy Wake County Fire Marshal W. Donel Braxton and the members of the Garner B shift shared their collective experiences in detail:

  • Pre-planning was a big help. All Tier 2 forms for the building were up to date and available immediately.
  • ConAgra regularly practiced its emergency plans, which greatly assisted in evacuating the building. However, employees need to also recognize that these plans must be flexible. The primary meeting point designated by the plan was immediately adjacent to the collapse zone and in the path of the ammonia release, and this complicated the initial response.
  • An excellent on-site personnel tracking system helped to identify the missing employees early on. Every worker in the building — including service personnel from outside agencies — was logged into a database that was accessible from the ConAgra home office.
  • Despite the above, the sheer number of displaced workers created logistical issues. Two left the scene, then returned, and many got off the buses being used for transport because of the heat or to smoke.
  • Many resources, such as USAR, hazmat and a command van, are readily available in the area, and the location of the incident near an interstate highway allowed significant assistance to arrive quickly. Departments operating in more rural areas should anticipate the need to call specialized units as soon as possible to counteract possible transit delays.
  • Realize, too, the capacity of and limitation of specialized teams. The USAR response consisted of not only emergency vehicles, but a large crane and two tractor-trailers full of lumber. Assign sufficient space for them to stage and operate. And while USAR and hazmat teams added to the overall personnel count, these individuals are there for special services and do not factor into the firefighting force.
  • The proximity to the state capital also resulted in a deluge of representatives from state and federal regulatory agencies arriving on the scene. More than 100 people arrived at varying times, most without advance notice.
  • Take steps to secure the command post immediately, and restrict access to a select few who really need to be there. On incidents of this magnitude, remember the limitations of mobile command posts, and secure a fixed location if more space is needed.
  • Consider setting up multiple staging areas, one for emergency equipment and another for regulatory agencies. This will provide a buffer to the incident commander and create a more controlled environment.
  • On large operations, the entire incident team must be in place as soon as possible. For example, procurement requirements surfaced quickly that needed to be addressed.
  • Expect the unexpected. This incident changed focus several times from a mass-casualty incident, to a hazmat emergency, to a USAR response, to firefighting. The heat posed additional problems; at one point, recovery operations were temporarily put on hold due to blasting at a nearby quarry.
  • Industrial incidents are not like house fires and cannot be treated like them. Although the bulk of the true emergency was controlled within an hour, the operation lasted for days. Plan for regular crew rotation, including the incident commander.

While the last fire unit cleared the scene at 10:11 P.M. on June 11, the memory of this day will remain with Garner Fire-Rescue, other first responders and the community as a whole for years to come. The North Carolina Department of Labor opened an investigation into 10 companies that had employees on-site the day of the incident, with focus being placed on a newly installed gas water heater. As a result, the cause of the explosion has been identified as the purging of a gas line into an exposed space, apparently not an unheard-of practice. Several similar incidents have been cited in a safety bulletin published by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which can be viewed at the website http://www.chemsafety.gov/UserFiles/file/CSB_Safety%20Bulletin_Final_Embargoed_10_2_09.pdf. While the board issued an alert, it made no recommendations on changes to code. The North Carolina Building Code Council, however, voted to require that natural gas lines be vented outside during any repair work or, if that is not possible, to evacuate all non-essential personnel from the work area.

In the wake of this tragedy, the media reported that one victim, Louis "Junior" Watson, died attempting to help others evacuate. (In a cruel twist of fate, ConAgra worker James Evans, who survived the blast, died three weeks later in a motorcycle accident.) Released autopsy results for the other fatalities determined that blunt-force trauma to the head and chest was the cause of death, consistent with being struck by falling debris. While some workers returned within six weeks, approximately 300 were slated to be temporarily laid off due to reduced production capacity.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.