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Crews recover 3 bodies from Slim Jim plant

GARNER. (AP) ó Search teams recovered three bodies from the unstable wreckage of a Slim Jim snack factory Wednesday, one day after an explosion knocked down parts of the roof and an exterior wall.
Crews in bulky hazard suits brought out two bodies in the afternoon after retrieving the remains of Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn before dawn. Garner Police Sgt. Chris Clayton named the other two victims as Rachel Mae Poston Pulley, 67 and Lewis Junior Watson, 33, both of Clayton.
Workers will try to remove parts of an exterior wall that had fallen onto vehicles nearby and continue searching the building for possible victims. But authorities only knew of the three employees who were missing after the Tuesday explosion.
“They will continue to search through the rest of the building, and once that building search is complete, then the search and rescue and recovery efforts will come to a conclusion,” Clayton said. “We feel comfortable … that the people that were at the plant have now been accounted for.”
The unexplained explosion ripped through the 500,000-square-foot ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Garner while 300 people were at work. Officials said 38 employees were injured, including four with critical burns, and three firefighters were treated for inhaling ammonia fumes and released.
Search and rescue chief Frank McLaurin said two of the bodies were found near each other while the third body was found several hundred feet away.
Hazmat suits were required because ammonia vapor, which had been tamped down by the rain, was leaking up through the debris, McLaurin said. But the gas wasn’t a danger outside of the building. Some roads in the area were still closed.
Anthony McLean, 38, the brother of Spears, told The Associated Press that she worked at the plant for about 15 years, most recently in the cutting department.
“I knew she was a victim when I went to ConAgra and she didn’t get off the bus,” McLean said. “I knew something was wrong with my sister at that time. No one could tell us what hospital she was in or anything.”
ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin said the company was putting money into a fund to help the families of victims. He said the company’s hope is to rebuild, but cautioned that there were many aspects to work through.
“We’re starting the process of identifying what happened,” Rodkin said. “Our goal is to make sure nothing like this happens again.”
Authorities could not say where in the plant the blast happened or what caused it, but some workers who escaped said chaos and panic followed.
Janelle Lynch, who has worked there for eight years, said she saw flames and ran. She planned to leave through the cutting department, but the roof started to collapse, so she went in the other direction and escaped through a warehouse.
“I saw a fire and things just started exploding,” she said.
About 900 people cover four shifts at the plant, one of ConAgra’s largest, company spokesman Dave Jackson said. The ammonia is used to refrigerate meat before it’s turned into Slim Jims.
The company, which has 25,000 employees worldwide, makes brands like Chef Boyardee, Hunt’s tomato sauce, ACT II popcorn and Hebrew National hot dogs.
The plant was last inspected by the North Carolina Department of Labor for workplace safety last July and no violations were found, department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry said. The plant had violations in previous years, including a fine in 2007 for problems with eye and face protection equipment.

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