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Slim Jim Plant Explosion Claims Fourth Victim

Tue, 11/24/2009 - 4:23am

EMERY P. DALESIO Associated Press Writer — November 24, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A fourth victim has died from injuries suffered in a natural gas explosion that tore through a North Carolina Slim Jim plant five months ago, a hospital spokesman said Monday.

Curtis Ray Poppe, 55, died Thursday at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill, spokesman Tom Hughes said. An obituary posted by a Hickory funeral home said Poppe's family greeted friends there Sunday.

Four critically burned victims were among the 71 who required hospital treatment after the June blast at the ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Garner, said U.S. Chemical Safety Board lead investigator Don Holmstrom.

More than 200 people were working in the plant when the explosion in the packaging area caused part of the roof to collapse. Three others killed as a result of the explosion were struck by debris or crushed when part of the building collapsed.

Poppe worked for Energy Systems Analysts Inc., a Hickory company hired to install a water heater.

Two federal agencies have blamed natural gas for the blast. The Chemical Safety Board said contractors installing the water heater likely vented natural gas inside the building before the explosion as they purged a gas line. Officials said the gas should be vented outside.

David Stradley, a Raleigh lawyer representing injured ConAgra employees in a lawsuit against Energy Systems and Curtis Poppe, said an attorney for the company called him last week to say Poppe had died.

A listed telephone number for Poppe in Hickory was disconnected. Family members in North Carolina and Wisconsin, where Poppe was born, did not return calls seeking comment.

ConAgra resumed diminished production at its Garner plant in July after paying plant workers' wages for more than a month after the blast. The company said in September it would lay off about 300 of the factory's 750 remaining workers.

Federal officials expect the full investigation of the ConAgra plant blast to be finished in 2010.

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