Friday, 03 September 2021 17:44

IMPERIAL FOODS FIRE: 'A tragedy that should have never happened'

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Recently retired Hamlet Fire Chief Calvin White receives a commemorative fire service coin from Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey during a memorial service for the 30th anniversary of the Imperial Foods fire. Recently retired Hamlet Fire Chief Calvin White receives a commemorative fire service coin from Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey during a memorial service for the 30th anniversary of the Imperial Foods fire. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

HAMLET — For Calvin White, the 1991 Imperial Foods fire “is very personal.”

White capped off his 42 years with the Hamlet Fire Department on Friday in a memorial service for the worst call of his career.

“Imperial Foods is a tragedy that should have never happened,” said White, who retired as chief on Sept. 1. “It should have never, ever happened — and that’s the sadness of it.

“A town this size and you have 25 people die at one time in a fire, simply because the doors were locked? Not because people didn’t know where they were going to get out. They knew exactly how to get out. When they got there, the doors were locked.”

According to reports from the time, the owners of the Imperial Foods chicken plant had locked the doors because they suspected employees of stealing the product.

“Even 30 years later, it’s still a very raw subject with me,” White said. “I get very emotional thinking about it. I try not to, but I still do.”

White said he knew about half the people who died in the fire.

“It made a mark in this community that will never heal,” White said.

At the time of the fire, White was a captain. Under his charge were two young firefighters: Robin Leviner and Richard Lassiter.

“I remember when these guys were young, young folks, and they were having to do what I was telling them to do in a situation they should have never been in to begin with,” White said.

“To me, it was more of a burden on him (White) that day than us,” said Leviner, who retired five years ago but is still a volunteer with the department. “We were young.”

Leviner said White has been a father figure to both him and Lassiter for years.

“He’s one of our dads … and I still look at him today as another father figure in my life,” Leviner said. “He took us hunting … he talked to us, was someone to go to. Losing him in the fire service, the city’s losing a great man. But he’s done his part and it’s time for him to go, and enjoy life. And I’m proud of him.”

Leviner said the fire department is like a family.

Interim Hamlet Fire Chief Richard Lassiter, retired fireman and volunteer Robin Leviner and retired Chief Calvin White stand together at the Imperial Foods fire 30th anniversary memorial service.

It was that family bond that helped them cope with what they saw Sept. 2, 1991.

White said there was one group therapy session, with all the firefighters sitting around in a circle.

“You can’t talk to people about something like that, in a situation like that, and it take hold, so to speak,” White said. “So we had that one session that didn’t really go that well — and after that, we had our own personal get-togethers as a department, as individuals, and that did a whole lot more.”

Leviner said they would go to each other’s homes and talk, or just go to the woods “and that’s how we’d do our therapy.”

“We had a place called Big Rock, and if it was nothing but just going to Big Rock and sitting on it and just talking …It wasn’t about the hunting, it was just talking,” Leviner said.

“There wasn’t much hunting going on because the rifles were laid out and we talked most of the time,” Lassiter added. “We carried them to look like we were hunting, but we actually were not.”

What most people don’t know about firefighters, White said, is “we want to save everybody.”

“And when we can’t, we take that to heart — in a bad kinda way,” White said. “And so it kinda festers inside us that we couldn’t have done more. We wish we had … it’s very tough.”

According to the report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Hamlet Fire Department had two firemen on duty at all times and 28 volunteers — 22 of whom responded to the fire that day.

But the fire suppression and rescue and recovery was a countywide effort.

White said all first responders in Richmond County came out to help.

Frankie Moree had been with the Rockingham Fire Department for six years at the time and said that was “a hell of a day.”

Former Rockingham fireman and Fayetteville fire marshal Frankie Moree bows his head in a moment of silence for the victims of the Imperial Foods fire.

Moree said he and Gus Bellamy were the first mutual aid responders to arrive when they saw White performing CPR.

“We realized it was more than we were ready for,” he recalled. “I remember laying hose from across the railroad tracks and blocking the railroad tracks and going in the back door.”

The FEMA report states: “AFFF foam was used to extinguish the vats which eventually caught fire.”

Moree said firefighters were inside when the fryer blew up.

Soon after, they started body recovery.

“It was absolutely crazy — the sights that we got to see. It changed everything. The whole fire service changed after that.”

Moree said that incident made him focus on getting codes and were being enforced in place and being enforced. It also made him want to be a fire marshal.

“There were no inspections to make these people accountable,” Moree said.

Moree retired as a fire marshal in Fayetteville, with 28 years in the fire service. 

Scott Waters, now chief of the Richmond County Rescue Squad, had been a volunteer for about three years and was working on a degree in Criminal Justice at UNC-Pembroke.

When he heard the fire at Imperial Foods page out over the scanner, Waters had one main concern — his mother, who worked there.

Rescue Chief Scott Waters, right, speaks with Michael Banks following the memorial service. Both of their mothers were working at Imperial Foods at the time, though Banks' mother did not survive.

“I got up, tried to find my dad, couldn’t find my dad so I took off,” Waters recalled. “I had to park up here at the top of Main Street … so I had to run from Main Street all the way down to here.

“The smoke and stuff was coming out, people were laying all over the ground, they seen my rescue pager and they were trying to do CPR on their friends and coworkers,” Waters continued. “One lady grabbed me by my arm and I said, “I gotta go find my mama. I’ll be back, I promise, let me find my mama.’”

A family friend found Waters and took him to his mother.

“Mama was inside where the fire started and she fell out when they was trying to run, evacuate and somebody said, ‘Help Ms. Martha,’ and they got her up,” Waters continued, saying one of the doors was blocked by a dumpster. “That’s where everybody was trying to go, couldn’t see because of the smoke … and she fell out again and said the last thing she remembers is saying the Lord’s Prayer.”’

When he got to her, Waters said she was in the street and breathing like “a fish out of water.” He said that always stuck with him because he used to fish and swim in the creek behind the fairgrounds.

He kept an air pack on her until they got to the old Hamlet Hospital on Rice Street.

“When we got inside there she grabbed her chest — and I lost it, then they had to get me out.”

Waters said his mother was one of the first victims to be flown to Chapel Hill.

It was that incident that drove him to join the Hamlet Police Department, where he retired as chief in 2019 after nearly 30 years.

According to the FEMA report, the first-responder effort included EMS units from Cordova, Ellerbe and Hoffman and fire crews from East Rockingham, Cordova and Northside.

During the memorial, White was honored with a plaque by City Manager Matthew Christian for his years of service.

“He’s an outstanding leader and public servant and is an example to all in our community,” Christian said.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey also presented White with a commemorative fire service coin. 

White said he wanted to make sure the victims were remembered, but also wanted the survivors to know “that they’re not carrying this burden alone.”

“This site is hallowed ground,” White said. “It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, I don’t care if it’s 100 years from now, we should never forget this day, or this place, or the people that lost their lives.”