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A poultry processor who prosecutors said ordered fire escapes locked was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison Monday after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the fire deaths of 25 workers.

Emmett Roe, whose Imperial Foods Products plant burned last September in one of the nation's deadliest workplace fires, could have received 10 years on each of the 25 counts - 250 years.In a surprise plea bargain, Roe, 65, was sentenced to 19 years and 11 months in prison. Under parole guidelines, he could be released after serving less than three years, defense attorney Joe Cheshire said.

As part of the plea agreement, charges against Roe's 29-year-old son - plant operations manager Brad Roe - and plant manager James N. Hair, 56, were dropped.

The three were indicted in March on 25 counts each of involuntary manslaughter, one count for each victim in the fire.

Prosecutors said they were satisfied with the plea.

"Our investigation did show Emmett Roe ran the plant as a dictator," assistant district attorney David Graham said. "He personally made the decision to padlock the doors. . . . I'm confident the person who's responsible for that locked-door policy is in prison."

Employees said the doors were locked to reduce pilferage.

Twenty-four employees and a delivery man died Sept. 3, 1991, when hydraulic fluid from a conveyor belt under repair sprayed over a gas-fired chicken fryer at the company's plant in Hamlet. A 30-second fireball sent dense, toxic smoke through the plant.

Federal and state inspectors said the plant had locked or blocked exits that prevented some workers from escaping. They also discovered the plant had no sprinkler system and no fire alarms. The state fined the company $808,150. Emmett Roe said he couldn't pay even $1.

Roe immediately began serving the sentence at the state prison in Troy.

Cheshire said Roe entered the guilty pleas to save his family.

"Emmett Roe is a bright and, whatever people think, a very nice man," Cheshire said. "He also is a very practical man who has a lot of honor and who loves his family."

But some survivors of the fire said justice was not served.

"It hurts," former plant worker Conester Williams said. "There were 25 of my best friends who died in that fire. I feel like he deserved more time. I feel in my heart that God is going to punish him in that prison."

Martina Quick, whose sister Mary Alice Quick died, said it was an "awful" verdict.

"He should have did the whole 250 years. They should have tried him and let him serve his due time. It is not right," she said.

Graham said research by his office showed that the longest sentence for "this type of crime prior to this sentence today was 12 to 15 years." That sentence was in 1944 against Barnett Welansky, owner of the Coconut Grove Nightclub in Boston where a fire killed patrons and employees.

Roe still faces at least 19 lawsuits filed by victims' families.