Processing Magazine

Blast that killed three at Slim Jim plant caused by gas leak

June 15, 2009
Authorities said an explosion that killed three workers at a North Carolina Slim Jim plant was caused by a natural gas leak that ignited in a room housing vacuum pumps for sealing the snacks, reports the Associated Press. It will now be up to state and federal workplace investigators to determine how the leak happened and what caused it to ignite at the ConAgra Foods Inc. plant, said Earl Woodham, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ATF agents believe the gas was sparked by a piece of equipment such as a fan motor or thermostat, but the agent said another cause, like static electricity, couldn''t be ruled out. The ATF concluded the explosion was an accident and closed its criminal investigation. The explosion ripped through the 500,000-square-foot plant in Garner while 300 people were at work. Officials said 38 employees were injured, four of them suffering critical burns. Three firefighters were treated after inhaling fumes from ammonia, which is used in the plant as a refrigerant. Some workers in and near the pump room reported smelling gas in the hours before the blast. On the day of the explosion, workers were installing a new piece of equipment in the room, but it''s not clear if that played a role, Woodham said. ConAgra plans to assist the state Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board as they take over the investigation, company spokesman Dave Jackson said. The company has no timetable on when the plant could be reopened, Jackson said. Killed in the explosion were Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn, and two Clayton residents: Rachel Mae Poston Pulley, 67, and Lewis Junior Watson, 33. Officials in Garner said they will do whatever it takes to help reopen the plant, which employees 900 in the town of 25,000, just south of Raleigh.