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N.C. Plant Workers to 9-1-1: 'ConAgra just blew up'

0610-nc-rescue-373

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Emergency tapes released Monday show workers dialed 911 in a frenzy after escaping an explosion that killed three workers at a Slim Jim processing plant, with one panicked woman telling dispatchers: "ConAgra just blew up!"

The 15 audio tapes portray the early moments after the blast rocked the sprawling facility in Garner, a few miles south of Raleigh, where 300 people were working. Some callers tried to describe the situation as sirens blared and people screamed in the background, and responders struggled to understand the unfolding scene.

"ConAgra just blew up!" said one employee, referring to the plant's operator.

"What do you mean it blew up?" the dispatcher asked.

"It blew up! We need some help!" the woman responded.

Callers reported that people were severely burned and bleeding. The blast injured dozens, with four still in critical condition with extensive burns.

"Oh my God. This is horrible," one man said.

"Oh Lord, have mercy. What in the world happened?" another woman said during her call.

A few callers stayed calm. One man described the size of a section of the building that collapsed and softly said there were probably people still inside.

"Send whatever you got, buddy," he told the dispatcher.

Federal investigators have blamed a natural gas leak for the explosion that killed Barbara McLean Spears, 43, of Dunn, and two Clayton residents: Rachel Mae Poston Pulley, 67, and Lewis Junior Watson, 33.

Meanwhile, two injured workers sued a contractor Monday, saying that company is responsible for the natural gas leak.

Leonard Spruill of Selma and Tammie O'Neal of Zebulon filed a lawsuit against Raleigh-based Southern Industrial Constructors, said their attorney, David Stradley. It was filed in Johnston County, where Selma is located, Stradley said, and seeks damages in excess of $10,000.

Spruill is still being treated for burns, and O'Neal is out of the hospital but still on crutches for back, leg and head injuries, he said.

"You don't have a natural gas explosion without something going wrong," Stradley said. "If everybody does everything right, you don't have a gas explosion."

Southern Industrial President John Wilson said the company had five employees working under the supervision of ConAgra's maintenance department. Although Stradley said building permits indicated Southern Industrial employees were installing natural gas-fired water heaters, Wilson said: "We've never installed a water heater at ConAgra."

"We believe it's all fabricated, at least in terms of our involvement," Wilson said. " ... We feel very confident that we haven't had any involvement."

Daniel Horowitz, a U.S. Chemical Safety Board spokesman, said Monday that the blast site was still hazardous and was hindering investigators. Neal O'Briant, a spokesman with the state Department of Labor, said it would be several months before it releases the results of its investigation into whether the employer followed proper safety precautions.

Officials in Garner said they will do whatever it takes to help reopen the plant, which employs 900 in the town of 25,000. ConAgra has 25,000 employees worldwide and makes brands such as Chef Boyardee, Hunt's tomato sauce, ACT II popcorn and Hebrew National hot dogs.

___

Associated Press Writer Martha Waggoner contributed to this story.

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