By Alysia Patterson
GARNER, N.C. — An explosion at a Slim Jim meat products plant Tuesday injured at least 41 people, including four who suffered critical burns, and left a toxic cloud around the facility as authorities searched for three people still missing.
Authorities first said one of the three had been located but later said that was wrong.
"We don't know if they're in the building or not, but we're going to go look for them," said Jeffrey Hammerstein, district chief with Wake County Emergency Medical Services.
Chris Woods, a worker at the facility, said he started running after feeling an explosion around 11 a.m.
"I was picking up a piece of meat off the line and I felt it, the percussion in my chest," Woods said. "One of the guys I was working with got blown back, he flew backwards."
Hammerstein said 41 people — five tagged as priority patients with serious conditions — were taken to hospitals, including three firefighters. Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said injuries ranged from burns to smoke inhalation. Emergency crews were keeping people away because of concerns about ammonia, and Williams said there was a toxic cloud around the facility.
Ammonia is used to refrigerate the meat before it is turned into Slim Jims, ConAgra spokesman Dave Jackson said.
Jackson said someone called the plant over the weekend and threatened to start a fire, but authorities don't believe there was any connection to Tuesday's explosion. The company searched the plant thoroughly and determined it was safe to work in, he said.
"At this point we don't believe there was any connection," he said.
Patients were sent to five area hospitals. Four people were in critical condition at UNC Hospitals with burns covering between 40 and 60 percent of their bodies, said Dr. Charles Cairns, professor and chairman of the department of emergency medicine at the University of North Carolina.
"Anything that covers more than 50 percent of the body surface area is a very major burn and can be complex to take care of and can result in major complications, including death," Cairns said. "So these people are very severely burned."
About 300 people were in the plant a few miles south of Raleigh when the explosion happened, Jackson said. Parts of the roof collapsed.
Officials said firefighters were still trying to contain a small fire and an ammonia leak several hours later.
About 900 people covering four shifts work at the 500,000-square foot plant, which produces Slim Jim products and is considered one of ConAgra's largest, said Jackson, the spokesman for the Omaha, Neb.-based company.
"Obviously our first priority is the safety of our employees and the community and making sure our employees are accounted for and working with them to get them whatever they might need," he said.
ConAgra was sending a team of experts to the facility and helping local authorities.
ConAgra Foods Inc. makes brands like Chef Boyardee, Hunt's tomato sauce, ACT II popcorn and Hebrew National hot dogs. It has 25,000 employees worldwide.
The plant last was inspected by the North Carolina Department of Labor for workplace safety last July and no violations were found, said Labor Department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry. The plant had violations in previous years, including a fine in 2007 for problems with eye and face protection equipment.
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Associated Press Writers Mike Baker, Estes Thompson, and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh and AP Business Emily Fredrix in Milwaukee contributed to this report.