‘The Hamlet Fire’


Bryant Simon, New Press, 303 pages, $26.95. On Sept. 3, 1991, fire swept through the Imperial Food Products chicken-processing plant in the town of Hamlet, N.C. Workers scrambled to save themselves. But an exit was blocked. Sprinklers failed. Twenty-five minimum-wage line workers died. The fire was one of the worst industrial accidents in recent U.S. history. Years later, Temple University historian Bryant Simon went to the town, suspecting that behind the fire was a larger story. The story he finds connects the fire to changes in America, with the New South, particularly North Carolina, the center of it. Policymakers there “pioneered a political economy” with low taxes and hands-off government. Imperial Food’s owner, Emmett Roe, never applied for a building permit, then underpaid for water, which he didn’t clean, instead releasing chunks of grease into the town’s water supply. Roe at each step was met by a government that protected it, instead of workers. Thus the true cost of unclean and dangerous employment was not reflected in the price of the bird. On the contrary, it was quietly borne by vulnerable workers, while Roe, with agricultural subsidies, produced artificially cheap chicken tenders for Long John Silver’s restaurants. It is testament to Simon’s reportorial instincts and research that he has found this sprawling, occasionally nauseating story in the detritus of that now-forgotten fire. His trail from that day through poultry economics to a core of new American values is captivating and brilliantly conceived, and will provide readers with insights into our current national politics.