ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) _ The owner of a chicken processing plant where 25 workers died in a fire a year ago pleaded guilty today and was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.

Imperial Food Products Inc. owner Emmett Roe pleaded guilty today to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The state dropped charges against plant operations manager Brad Roe and plant manager James Hair.

The plea and dropping of charges came in a plea bargain that averted a criminal trial in one of the nation's worst job disasters.

Twenty-four Imperial 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 safety 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, 65; Brad Roe, his 29-year-old son; and Hair, 56, all were indicted in March on 25 counts of involuntary manslaugther.

For his guilty pleas, the elder Roe could have faced a maxmimum sentence of 10 years on each count - 250 years. After receiving his 19-year, 11-month sentence, he was taken to the Richmond County Jail for eventual transfer to prison.

Joe Cheshire, one of four defense attorneys, said Roe pleaded guilty ''to save his family.''

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

There were no outbursts in the court during the sentencing, but many of the survivors and victims relatives said afterward that they were upset with the agreement.

''It was a setup. I think it was awful,'' said Martina Quick, whose sister Mary Alice Quick died in the fire. ''He should have did the whole 250 years. They should have tried him and let him serve his due time. It is not right.''

Delores Gail Pouncey of Bennettsville, S.C., who escaped from the fire, was upset that charges against Brad Roe were dismissed, calling him ''the worst one.''

None of the defendants has commented on the case, even in court today.