New Book looks at Conditions leading to tragic 1991 Hamlet Fire

Nov 6, 2017

The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives - Bryant Simon (New Press)

INTRO – On September 3, 1991 North Carolina experienced its worst industrial disaster when a fire broke out at a chicken processing plant in the Richmond County town of Hamlet, killing 25. The view at the time was that spendthrift owners neglected safety to save a buck. But a new book theorizes that the plant fire was the end result of a changing relationship between government, industry and people. George Olsen has more.

When Bryant Simon began his research into events surrounding the Hamlet Imperial Foods plant fire there was no wiggle room in where blame for the tragedy lay.

    “One of the things I recall in the book is sitting down early in my research with three Hamlet reporters and local boosters and talking about the fire and all of them pointed an accusing finger at Emmett and Brad Roe, the New York born and Pennsylvania raised owners of the plant.”

And officially, that’s probably where the blame lays to this day.

    “Emmett Roe tried to protect his son and his son-in-law who were the day-to-day managers at the plant, he would plead guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter which he had been charged with and he would get a deal of 19 years and serve about four.”

But in the book “The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives,” Bryant Simon writes the blame may have ended on the doorstep of Emmett Roe, but a long trail led to the disaster which claimed 25 lives.      

    “And essentially what had happened beginning in the 1970s was a new social bargain took place, and that social bargain emphasized cheap. It emphasizes the role of government in creating as many jobs as possible no matter what the conditions are, no matter what the pay. In exchange for that is workers get to buy cheap goods, goods that are inexpensive. The problem with that is much gets hidden. It requires a kind of brutalization of the environment, a kind of terrorism toward animals in this case, and a system of deregulation that made that plant kind of invisible, and that was important to what happened.”

In retrospect, a fire of this magnitude could have been easily foretold. Simon notes that before the fatal fire of September 1991, Imperial Foods previously had at least 2 fires, yet the local fire department, located just a couple of blocks away, never conducted a full inspection of the plant. Simon writes that Hamlet for a period in the mid-20th century resembled industrial powerhouses like Pittsburgh and Detroit, with good-paying jobs brought in by the railroad industry. The town was so comparatively flush that one person referred to Hamlet as the “Southern capitol of the backyard swimming pool.” But those good-paying railroad jobs eventually left, and in desperation to provide jobs, Simon says government practiced a form of “benign neglect.”

    “But by the 1970s that economy began to fall apart as people opted for different ways to transport goods, largely over roads, and they drove on their vacation, so Hamlet became again like those industrial powerhouses, a de-industrialized place. It lost its primary industry, and that made the town desperate for any kind of job. So when Imperial came looking to re-locate and they relocated into what had been an old ice cream plant, the town was happy to have it, probably celebrated their arrival as an important moment in the recovery of the town, and the bargain then was that they essentially left Imperial alone.”

It wasn’t just a local government model. Bryant Simon contends the state embraced it as well.

    “Democrats and Republicans disagreed about many things in the 20th century in NC, but on this point they did not disagree, that the role of government was essentially not about protecting the most vulnerable citizens in the state but was to encourage business growth, and they believed in a kind of trickle down model that jobs would be beneficial to everybody… the individual employee, the local municipality or county government, and the state.”

And the reach of benign neglect extended to the federal government as well. One of the reasons given for why some workers died during the 1991 fire was that the plant owners locked doors to keep their low-paid workers from stealing their low-cost product. That was true for one of the doors.

    “But the door that many people died behind and were forced to run into the cooler was locked because flies were coming in to the plant, and the USDA, a government regulation we were willing to pay for, was in the plant almost every day, they actually signed off, the USDA, the federal government, that is, to the locking of the back doors to keep flies out. So they were willing to protect the meat for consumers, but they were unwilling to protect workers, to give them the ability to get out of the plant in case of an accident.”

A dozen workers who retreated to the cooler when confronted by those locked doors died when, ironically, the cooler door wouldn’t close properly and deadly carbon monoxide poured into the cooler. There was another method available to keep flies out of the plant, but it was more expensive and the USDA signed off on the simpler, cheaper method.

Simon contrasts what he terms a “system of cheap” with the social system known as “Fordism,” a concept named for Henry Ford who paid his automobile assembly line workers comparatively high wages which enabled them to buy the very products they put together, which Simon says would create a “much greater aggregate demand,” good for Ford Motors, good for the American economy. The new system paid lower wages but provided lower cost goods. But Simon contends this new system hid its costs, and what was cheap for business would become expensive for government.

    “Many people who work in chicken plants, both the disassembly plants and the further processing plants like the one at Imperial, suffer from all kinds of repetitive motion injuries and eventually end up on public assistance, and it ultimately hid the cost of the food they made. The chickens that were processed across NC and the pork to a certain extent, by the time it reached people’s plates was often filled with dangerous calories that, again, would kind of put costs on the government on the back end, costs that are born from people who suffer with obesity and other issues related to unhealthy weight gain.”

Long ago in my past, I recall reading “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. I couldn’t begin to tell you any details on the book today. In fact, I took a quick Wikipedia look at the book and was surprised to find it wasn’t so much a non-fiction book as it was historical fiction. The one thing I remember decades later is if anyone ever questioned the need for government regulation, my reply was they should read “The Jungle” first. Bryant Simon’s book is pure non-fiction, so it can’t quite be compared to “The Jungle.” But he does take some inspiration from “The Jungle’s” author with hope perhaps for a similar impact.

    “I would love to be, a book that’s still in print a hundred years from now. But Sinclair had a kind of interesting ambition. Sinclair famously said about his book “I aim for people’s heads and I hit their stomachs.” Hopefully I can hit people’s heads by appealing to their stomachs and getting them to realize in some ways the system of cheap that we live under and that prevailed in 1991 in Hamlet was a return to the past in many ways, a return to a past of deregulation, of vulnerability, and that… of actually a system that’s more expensive when you add up all its costs, and my hope is that by remembering the fire and remembering the tragedy there we can also remember the positive role that government can play in people’s lives, and we can also think that our best society is one that values everybody equally.”

“The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives” by Bryant Simon is published by The New Press. I’m George Olsen.

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Full transcript of interview with Bryant Simon conducted by George Olsen

Give me the thumbnail of the events that are the centerpiece for this book.

September 3rd, 1991 was the day after Labor Day, and workers arrived that morning early like they did every other day. They went to their places on the line and about 20 minutes after they started, at about 8:22 am, an explosion happened in the plant. Investigators would later learn that a hydraulic line that was pieced together with the wrong parts became uncoupled and began to spew, really flammable, fluids all around including under the burners that were lighting the fryer that cooked the chicken nuggets and tenders that the Imperial Food products made. That created an explosion. Workers quickly began to run and they ran to the exits, not knowing where they went because they’d never had a fire drill in the plant. They went to the back doors and they found those doors locked. In one case, the door was double bolted from the outside, and when workers kicked at it trying to knock it down, they did so not realizing it opened to the inside. A dozen or more workers confronting those locked doors moved into a cooler they thought would protect them from the dangerous heat and flames, but that door ironically didn’t close, and lethal doses of carbon monoxide seeped in there and made that cooler into a tomb where 12 workers died. All in all, 25 people died that morning in Hamlet, NC, a small town on the NC/SC border, and they died largely because of negligence.

The story at the time of the fire revolved along the lines of “spendthrift owners who were more concerned about saving $10 of chicken tenders from being spirited out the doors by low-wage workers than they were the safety and welfare of the plant’s workers.” Your contention appears to be there’s truth to that, but there had been a change in American attitude to how workers are treated that almost inevitably led up to the tragedy. 

I do. I call the event… one of the things I recall in the book is sitting down early in my research with three Hamlet reporters and local boosters and talking about the fire and all of them pointed an accusing finger at Emmett and Brad Roe, the New York born and Pennsylvania raised owners of the plant. What they missed was the larger conditions that made the fire a virtual inevitability. Those conditions really came to pass over time and it was a kind of shift in the way of thinking about the relationship between government and industry, between the government and people, and between the proper role of regulation in society. And essentially what had happened beginning in the 1970s was a new social bargain took place, and that social bargain emphasized cheap. It emphasizes the role of government in creating as many jobs as possible no matter what the conditions are, no matter what the pay. In exchange for that is workers get to buy cheap goods, goods that are inexpensive. The problem with that is much gets hidden. It requires a kind of brutalization of the environment, a kind of terrorism toward animals in this case, and a system of deregulation that made that plant kind of invisible, and that was important to what happened. And just to give one kind of story, as you point out the reporting about the fire was really good in the wake of the disaster. And one thing came out really clearly was the role of OSHA in NC. OSHA was a law put in place in 1970, and it was meant to protect workers on the job, but it needed inspectors, and NC had its own state-run OSHA program that at the time in 1990 NC was the most industrial state in the union, which in itself is a surprise. It had 180,000 workplaces and it had less than 50 inspectors, and that meant if each of those inspectors conducted one investigation a day five days a week it would’ve taken them between 60-70 years to inspect every factory in the state. What that meant for Imperial was there was no incentive to guarantee worker safety, in fact it was a disincentive. Their competitors were almost assuredly not abiding by safety laws, and if they did they would be at a competitive disadvantage, and they were in an intensely intensely competitive industry where every dollar mattered. So really, their use of the wrong part, their decision not to fix the equipment, their decision not to turn the burners off because they didn’t want to take the time to re-heat the oil were all decisions that were a product of this logic of cheap, and that’s why I argue in a sense that the fire was inevitable, not an accident, and not the actions of a single, kind of nefarious, plant owner.

“Fordism” … the idea that paying workers good wages would also allow them to buy the very products they were producing. This idea disappeared as the years went by.

In many ways, what was going on in the United States, particularly in small towns and rural areas, was the reverse of Fordism. Where Fordism, and Henry Ford famously paid his workers $5 a day, which was way above the standing rate, and his idea was, one, if I pay my workers more they’ll stay on the job, but, two, they’ll stay on the job and buy the things I make, a Model T. He was trying to deliberately create a much greater aggregate demand, and hoping that would not just help Ford but fuel the entire economy. By the 1970s in the wake of inflation and global restructuring, a new social bargain takes place and I call this the bargain of cheap. It’s kind of a reverse of Fordism. What this one says is we’re going to pay workers as little as we can, but in exchange for paying them as little as we can we’re going to get them cheap goods. The analogy that I think we can all use is the notion of a Wal-Mart worker gets off her or his shift at Wal-Mart and turns right back into the store to buy the things they were just selling. That’s essentially what happened at Imperial and many other places. At Imperial workers were paid just a little above minimum wage, which made it kind of a slightly better job than what was available at that community, particularly for the people that worked there. Many were women, many were single moms, many African-American, and they would in a sense turn right around and go to the Piggly Wiggly down the street buying the chicken tenders that they made, unknowingly, in some ways, hurting themselves even further by surviving on a diet of highly processed, cheap food, laden with fat, salt and sugar.

Hamlet seems to be a microcosm of how the workplace evolved in the 20th century … from a relatively prosperous area with railroad jobs protected by railway unions to low wage jobs where only those with few other options would step up.

Absolutely. Hamlet in many ways, in the middle decades of the 20th century, resembled the industrial powerhouses of Pittsburgh, Gary, Detroit, Minneapolis, Milwaukee. It was a railroad town, and for men … largely white men but to a certain extent African-American men who got jobs at the railroad… they got jobs for life, well-paying jobs that allowed them to buy houses, to buy cars, to take a vacation, to buy boats, and this one person commented that Hamlet was the Southern capitol, this person said, of the backyard swimming pool. In a sense a kind of barometer of people’s wealth, but by the 1970s that economy began to fall apart as people opted for different ways to transport goods, largely over roads, and they drove on their vacation, so Hamlet became again like those industrial powerhouses, a de-industrialized place. It lost its primary industry, and that made the town desperate for any kind of job. So when Imperial came looking to re-locate and they relocated into what had been an old ice cream plant, the town was happy to have it, probably celebrated their arrival as an important moment in the recovery of the town, and the bargain then was that they essentially left Imperial alone. I’ll give you an example of that. Imperial had 2 or 3 fires before the tragic fire of 1991, yet the local fire department which was just a couple of blocks away, never conducted a full inspection of the plant. On the day of the fire, fire fighters arrived without a pre-fire plan which fire departments typically draw up for places of employment, that gives them a map of the building, shows them where things are and where they should enter the building to sort of address any kind of problems. They didn’t have that. They didn’t even know where the best water supply was the morning of the fire. So, to give you another example, at one point the Imperial plant was choking the city sewage system with fat and grease and they had to close it down, yet they still didn’t close the Imperial plant down. It was a regime of in a sense of benign neglect, in exchange for getting those jobs that they were so desperate to have they let the employer run the plant the way they want and left the citizens of the town vulnerable to policies put in place by Imperial.

You propose that government played a part in the lead-up to the disaster, with a state that played up its “right to work” status and basically welcomed one-and-all businesses, with a philosophy of there’s no such thing as a bad job.

For much of the 20th century, NC, while not the poorest state in the south by any means, played a game of catch-up with the industrial north. In order to play that game of catch-up, it had to compete, and the way it competed was by making conditions better for business. Well, what that meant was that NC promised businesses if they relocated there they would find a state with low rates of unionization, a state with limited regulation and an ample supply of labor. And in many ways this was exactly what businesses wanted to hear, particularly after the 1970s when the overall tenor of the economy changed and grew more competitive. And what NC did in many ways was pioneer a strategy that one could describe as the kind of strategy of globalization, as countries across the globe, as they try and kind of industrialize and modernize, basically kind of promise investors a clean slate, that they can sort of do whatever they want to do. I would argue that NC in many ways pioneers in some ways the strategy that we would see across the world. What that meant on the ground was that employers came to NC expecting to have ample pools of labor that were, that they could exploit to a certain extent. This message made sense to many companies including a company like Imperial that was in a bitterly competitive industry. What makes the NC model particularly interesting was this was a model that crossed party lines. Democrats and Republicans disagreed about many things in the 20th century in NC, but on this point they did not disagree, that the role of government was essentially not about protecting the most vulnerable citizens in the state but was to encourage business growth, and they believed in a kind of trickle down model that jobs would be beneficial to everybody… the individual employee, the local municipality or county government, and the state. This became in a sense the kind of model for development in NC, but what it did was hide many of the actual costs, so that it appeared to be an inexpensive less government more jobs but it hid the environmental cost. The chicken industry is… really kind of brutal on the environment. It hid the cost in terms of human capital. The chicken industry is, again, wears worker’s bodies down. Many people who work in chicken plants, both the disassembly plants and the further processing plants like the one at Imperial, suffer from all kinds of repetitive motion injuries and eventually end up on public assistance, and it ultimately hid the cost of the food they made. The chickens that were processed across NC and the pork to a certain extent, by the time it reached people’s plates was often filled with dangerous calories that, again, would kind of put costs on the government on the back end, costs that are born from people who suffer with obesity and other issues related to unhealthy weight gain.

Where were the workers in all this? Problems were obvious early on. Why didn’t a warning come from them?

The appeal of a place like Hamlet to an employer like the Roes was worker’s desperate needs for jobs. Once the railroad industry left, once textiles shut down in Rockingham in Richmond County nearby, once another industry Clark Industries in Rockingham shut down, there were not a lot of jobs available in Richmond County and in Hamlet, but workers still had to take care of themselves. NC paid one of the lowest rates of welfare in the country, so a job was an absolute necessity to get by, and any job was seen as a good one, and this paid a little better than the worst jobs around, so workers were pretty committed to keeping those jobs. Now, it didn’t mean they didn’t mean they miss the dangers that they were under. It didn’t mean they were loyal particularly to Imperial. They just felt like they had no choice, and that’s part of the story and part of the story of the system of cheap, people locked in a system where they have very few choices. The employers had few choices, the workers had few choices. I tell the story in the book of a woman Ada Blanchard who grew up in Richmond County, went away after she finished high school or in her teens and came to Philadelphia where I live, and she claimed kind of with a smile on her face that she learned to speak up here in Philadelphia. Her relationship fell apart here and she went back to Richmond County and got a job at the Imperial Plant, and within a few days she had seen the conditions… the lack of safety, the lack of marked exits, the absence of fire drills, and she began to complain to her co-workers, and they told her to be quiet, they told her not to say anything, because they were afraid if they complained too much, Imperial would disappear, that the plant would just leave like the railroads disappeared. And while they didn’t like the job, what they could least afford was the lack of that opportunity, and so in an interesting way the system of cheap depends on a kind of manufactured silence… a silence of what’s in the food, a silence of what happens behind the factory doors, and the silence of the workers themselves. They didn’t feel like they had the luxury of a voice.

Irony is in some ways they were right. After the fire, the plant didn’t rebuild or re-open. It remained a ruin and not even destroyed for 11 years.

In some ways that’s the most bitter irony, right, that those workers showed up that morning on Sept. 3, 1991, workers like Loretta Goodwin who recalled feeling uneasy about that day, but she had no choice, she showed up like she did every morning and she got herself together, got to her position on the line, the factory exploded, she eventually got out of the plant alive and never worked again, so in many ways the working people of the town and the town bear the brunt of the kind of selfish and the less-than sort of expansive acts of the owners.

Tell me about Loretta Goodwin. She appears at the beginning and end of your book.

I met Loretta, she’s one of the first people I met when I went to Hamlet to interview anyone I could, really. I wanted to interview survivors. I wanted to interview first responders. I wanted to interview local officials, anyone who could give me some insight into the town and the tragedy, and Loretta Goodwin literally opened up her house to me, a house she bought with the settlement money from the fire. She was both articulate about what had happened but also there was a kind of deep sadness to her, a kind of… and I remember her saying one of the things that really sticks out for me is her talking, this was 20 years after the fire when I first talked to her, about how at night she would sometimes get mad at the television when there was nothing on because that meant that she had nothing left but to face the nightmares that might come when she still thought about the fire. And that sense of being trapped by the fire, even in her house, which was a really pleasant house with all the blinds drawn, 20 years after the fire, was really something that shaped my thinking. One of the things I hope the book conveys is a kind of sense of so many people for so many reasons being trapped, that’s the inevitability of it, that cheap is a system that traps them, and Loretta’s life, both in its kind of dignity of surviving but also in the kind of hard fact that she continued to be trapped by the fire was something I wanted to capture in the book.

It’s somewhat symbolic of the benign neglect that led up to the fire in 1991 that it took around 11 years to demolish the plant.

One of the things I try to write about in the book and particularly in the chapter called endings, the trauma of the fire in no way ends that morning or a month later or even a year later, that the fire, the system of cheap, the negligence that produced it continue to haunt the lives of people in Hamlet, particularly African Americans, so the plan was and sort of what was understood by everybody in South Hamlet which was kind of the black side of town, it would stay there, gnarled and charred with streams of yellow police tape, not for five years, six, seven but for 10 years, but what that meant was if you went to school you had to pass the plant. Perhaps you wanted to go to the grocery store, you passed the plant. If you wanted to go to baseball practice, you passed the plant. It became almost a form of terror for people, that they could not shake this kind of image. They even talked about when it rained they could smell burnt chicken kind of wafting from the site. Kids used the plant as a place to party and there was a fear that more tragedy would happen. It just became… and then it became a symbol for some people, rightly or wrongly, because it was very complicated figuring out how to get the plant down, but it became a symbol of the very kind of neglect that had led to the fire, that some people’s lives mattered more than others, and people in South Hamlet were convinced that if that plant had been on the white side of town, it would be gone. If there was a purpose to that place, it would be gone, and why wouldn’t the city put a memorial there if they really respected the victims of the fire. So it wasn’t just a symbol of neglect, it became a pretty active symbol of people in South Hamlet, particularly people of color, thinking that they weren’t valued by the leadership of the town, and it further erode a sense of trust that would help people get past some of their PTSD that they suffered from after the fire, but also kind of got in the way of how to move forward.

An experience I had several years ago popped into my head as I was reading this… listening to RFK Jr. at a Farmers for Fairness convention which was working against large-scale hog farming. He stated that he couldn’t remember a time when Americans had to line up for pork. You invoke that sentiment with the chicken industry… there was always plenty of chicken but there came a push to make it ever more inexpensive pushing the industry into some questionable practices.

Chicken in some ways is the great industrial success story of the post-war period. In 1923 chicken cost about as much as lobster. By 1990 chicken cost about the same in real dollars as it did in 1923, and that had been accomplished through a kind of amazing set of efficiencies, or brutalities, depending on how you mean them, from the breeding of oversize chickens with breasts so big their legs can barely hold them up to faster assembly lines to the massive use of antibiotics in the process, and in the process chicken became the cheapest form of meat-based protein. In 1990 at the same time chicken passed beef as the number one most consumed meat in America, and all of this is important, all of these coincidents are important because this is the system of cheap. In a sense, chicken had been made cheaper because of deregulation, because of new efficiencies, but had been made necessary by the driving down of wages. The thing about it is while many of these people, rural people who live in a place like Hamlet would’ve grown chicken when they were younger, they no longer had the time, the space and maybe even the know how to do it, and they definitely didn’t have the energy to sort of take care of those chickens. Those chickens probably would’ve been safer… less antibiotics, they probably would’ve been tastier… but they were living different lives, and what they really needed in chicken was its cheapness, they needed a product that didn’t cost very much to sort of make up for their decline in wages. Now, the interesting thing that has happened is at the same time producers are making chicken cheaper, they are figuring out ways of enhancing the relative profitability of those things, and that’s by adding ingredients, so at the same time chicken becomes the most eaten meat in America, in part because it’s presumed a little healthier than beef and its cheaper, it also increasingly comes fried. So working people are trying to get cheap food and trying to get food that’s easy to make because their hands hurt and their backs hurt and their bodies hurt, they’re increasingly making foods that are dangerous to their family. I think that the industrial model fits sort of the bargain of the time is that low wages need to translate into cheap products, and chicken is the perfect product for that.

It’s an ironic observation of mine that America must be a great country because our poor people are frequently overweight. But it’s part of the “system of cheap” you rail against… people aren’t necessarily fat because of a lack of self-control, they’re fat because the food choices that fit in their budget don’t necessarily mix with a healthy life-style.

Many with what we’re seeing in 1990 as cheap comes to reign as what some food scholars call the paradox of plenty. For the first time in history, people have too much of the wrong kind of calories. What happens is observers kind of look around them and see people who seem heavy and seem out of shape and they blame them for poor choices. In a sense arguing that if they just make better choices… go to the gym, exercise more, eat more broccoli or protein, they would be healthier. And as this problem kind of deepens, those bodies and those people become seen as a problem, right? Obesity and issues related to it now amount to a quarter of our health-care costs, so they’re blamed for their lack of discipline, but what I would argue is they’re being utterly rational. I’ll share with you one statistic that I share in the book. According to the documentary film “A Place at the Table” $3 worth of fruit adds up to 307 calories in the 1990s. That same $3 can buy as much as 3767 calories of processed food. In other words, in an era of cheap, low wages, high calorie-dense foods are a logical choice. When you add to that, many of the things that go into those foods are subsidized by the government, it’s a way of blaming the victim that is unfair and yet another one of these costs of cheap. I know in the book if you do one of these crude calculations of body types that 18 of 25 people who died were roughly deemed to be overweight or obese since they were eating the very things they made and those things were not very healthy, but they had no choice. They were not going to spend $3 on broccoli when they could get a meal’s worth of chicken tenders. They just didn’t have the money to do it.

Emmett & Brad Roe, owner & manager of the Imperial Plant respectively, have been portrayed negatively throughout as I earlier mentioned… too tight with a dollar to make proper repairs that could’ve prevented the disaster. But they don’t quite fit pure villain role in the sense that neither of them were exactly living the high life … in fact you noted when the lawsuits after the disaster started piling up a forensic accounting of the Roe’s found them bankrupt. It would be hard to find them victims, but the “system of cheap” ultimately didn’t play out well for them either.

I think one of the roots talents of writing the book was the Roes, to not make them just kind of ghoulish victims. In some ways that wasn’t easy. Emmett Roe sometimes played the part. He was kind of foul mouthed, taciturn, blunt. Brad Roe may be a more sympathetic character. But they were part of the system as well. They were in a brutally, brutally competitive industry and there was always someone willing to take their business from them. They operated at relatively small profit margins. They were besieged by debt, in 1991, some of it of their own making in bad decision making and some of it just a product of this deeply competitive industry. I try to describe in the book the relative logic of their decision making which was the same logic of cheap. Take the examples of locking the doors. It was widely said at the time of the fire that they locked the doors because they wanted to stop workers from stealing chickens, and that might be true for one of the doors, one off the break room. But the door that many people died behind and were forced to run into the cooler was locked because flies were coming in to the plant, and the USDA, a government regulation we were willing to pay for, was in the plant almost every day, they actually signed off, the USDA, the federal government, that is, to the locking of the back doors to keep flies out. So they were willing to protect the meat for consumers, but they were unwilling to protect workers, to give them the ability to get out of the plant in case of an accident. I think that’s really telling. It’s telling of the position the Roes were in. The thing they could afford the least was to be shut down because they were shut down they made no money and they couldn’t continue to service their debt and deal with all the economic problems they had. In the wake of the fire, they basically were out of money the first day afterwards. Any money they had was seized by a bank they did business with in Pennsylvania. The company wasn’t publicly owned, it was privately owned company by the family, they had everything in it. There was no value if they couldn’t make anything. There was no real value in the place. They would later essentially walk away. They would file bankruptcy. They would walk away, and Emmett Roe tried to protect his son and his son-in-law who were the day-to-day managers at the plant, he would plead guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter which he had been charged with and he would get a deal of 19 years and serve about four.      

I recall reading “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair in college, and though I couldn’t tell you anything today about the book, the one thing I do remember is thinking “if anyone wants to know why we have regulation of industry in the United States today, they should read The Jungle.” Do you have any similar type of aspiration for your tome?

I would love to be, a book that’s still in print a hundred years from how. But Sinclair had a kind of interesting ambition. Sinclair famously said about his book “I aim for people’s heads and I hit their stomachs.” Hopefully I can hit people’s heads by appealing to their stomachs and getting them to realize in some ways the system of cheap that we live under and that prevailed in 1991 in Hamlet was a return to the past in many ways, a return to a past of deregulation, of vulnerability, and that… of actually a system that’s more expensive when you add up all its costs, and my hope is that by remembering the fire and remembering the tragedy there we can also remember the positive role that government can play in people’s lives, and we can also think that our best society is one that values everybody equally.