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...


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...


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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.

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