The Virginian-Pilot
                               THE LEDGER-STAR 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Thursday, January 26, 1995             TAG: 9501260568
SECTION: LOCAL                    PAGE: B6   EDITION: FINAL 
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   64 lines


Emmett Roe, the poultry processing plant owner sent to prison for safety violations that led to the deaths of 25 people, is eligible for parole Friday.

By North Carolina state law, Roe and any other state inmate who has served one-eighth of a term can be considered for parole. Still, that infuriates many survivors of the Sept. 3, 1991, fire at Roe's Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, N.C. . The former workers still suffer from their injuries and mourn friends who suffocated and burned to death behind doors that Roe ordered locked.

``I just think about all them lives that were taken . . . all the people who got hurt,'' said Barbara Washington, a former marinade layerer at the plant. ``He shouldn't be able to walk away from that.''

In a 1992 plea agreement, Roe was sentenced to 19 years and 11 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter. The deal approved by prosecutors insulted many of the victims' relatives, who complained that it amounted to less than a year for each dead person.

Some are appalled now to learn that Roe, 67, could leave the Buncombe Correctional Center - if the Parole Commission agrees - after serving two years and five months, or roughly one-eighth of his term.

Prisoners convicted of involuntary manslaughter serve one-third of their sentence on average, a 1992 state study shows.

The Hamlet fire, which spurred a national debate on worker safety and led to improvements in the state's workplace monitoring program, began when hydraulic fluid from a leaky conveyor belt ignited in a gas-fired chicken fryer. Investigators later found footprints on the doors where trapped workers tried to kick open the locked exits.

In an investigation, SBI agents said Roe had ordered plant doors locked from the outside. Plant workers told agents it was because employees were stealing chickens.

Roe is eligible to be considered for parole every year. He was eligible for community service parole in March 1994 but was denied.

The commission may make a decision as early as Friday, Roe's official review date, or a few days after, commission spokesperson Tracy Herring said.

Roe's lawyer and three former business associates met privately Tuesday with Parole Commission members to make the case for Roe's release. They noted his age, exemplary behavior in prison and work behind the scenes to help get insurance claims paid for survivors and victims' families.

``He's tried to make the best out of a terrible situation,'' said his lawyer, Tom Manning. ``Maybe those people don't know that.''

The fire's scars on the small town of Hamlet are deep and permanent.

Twenty-five deaths meant hundreds of people in rural Richmond County lost a cherished friend, child, sibling, spouse or parent. Fifty-eight more were injured, and many of those remain unable to work or dependent on medicines to ease their pain. The Roe family never reopened the plant, putting 215 out of work.

Many who survived lay most of the blame on Roe.

``God tells us to forgive,'' said Ada Blanchard, a survivor. ``But he put money before human life.''