HAMLET, N.C. (AP) _ The fire that killed 25 people in a chicken-processing plant has left deep scars on this rural community and focused attention on North Carolina's workplace safety program.

''I doubt we'll ever recover because so many of us died,'' Robert Chavis said before entering the Second Baptist Church for the funeral of his cousin, Janice Lynch.

''This isn't the kind of thing you bargain for in being mayor of a town of 6,500,'' Mayor Abbie Covington said. ''But I don't think you could be prepared for this if you lived in a town of 6 million people.''

''We are all very sad,'' said Rosa Henry, who was born in Hamlet and raised nine children in this town about 75 miles southeast of Charlotte. ''This really shakes you up. These people were just working for a living.''

Most of the 18 women who died were single mothers, and their orphaned children were being sent to relatives or foster homes.

''It's become a real dilemma,'' said the Rev. Harold Miller of First Baptist Church. ''Right now the families are stepping in.''

The fire broke out Tuesday morning at the Imperial Food Products plant, which made chicken nuggets for fast-food restaurants and other customers.

A hydraulic hose burst near the plant's huge fryers and oil sprayed out in a mist.

The flames under the fryers ignited the mist, creating a dense smoke that was blamed for the 25 deaths and injuries to 54 others. One firefighter also was injured.

The fire, reports of locked exit doors and a lack of safety inspections put a spotlight on workplace safety issues in North Carolina.

More than a quarter of all employees in the state are in manufacturing, but the state has just 16 workplace safety inspectors - the nation's lowest number. Under federal guidelines, North Carolina should have at least 114 inspectors.

State Insurance Department investigators confirmed Friday that locked or blocked exits contributed to the death toll. The plant also had no automatic sprinklers.

The report was sent to Richmond County District Attorney Carroll Lowder, who will consider any criminal charges.

Tim Bradley, deputy commissioner of the state insurance department, said 12 of the victims had tried to escape through a locked door and then a blocked loading dock before winding up in a cooler.

Their bodies were found in the cooler with three more bodies outside its door.

Three people died at the loading dock, which was blocked by a truck. One body was found in a freezer and six more near the freezer door.

''If there are sufficient grounds for criminal charges, I want them filed,'' Mayor Covington said.

Workers and witnesses have said the plant's exits were routinely locked, apparently to prevent anyone from stealing chicken.

''What is a box of chicken when it comes to 25 lives?'' asked Sharon Evaness, who lives near the plant. ''You can't replace the mothers of those babies.''

On Friday, the town slowed down for the first of the funerals. More funerals were held Saturday.

Mental health officials and social workers are trying to assess the needs of the victims and their families. A victims' assistance center will open Monday.

''We're doing everything in our power,'' Ms. Covington said. ''These people can't afford to wait. They have to deal with it today. Their needs are a first priority.''

The Hamlet plant, which had not been inspected in its 11-year history, was visited last week by state Labor Commissioner John Brooks. He said the odds of an inspector making it to the plant on a random inspection were almost nonexistent.

Hiring more inspectors has been a low priority in recent years, due in large part to budget problems, legislative leaders say. But the tragedy will likely prompt the Legislature to act, said Rep. David Diamont, co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

''The need for those inspectors has been propelled to the top-priority list,'' Diamont said.

''This is the kind of tragedy that we were probably destined to have,'' said Bob Hall, research director at the Institute for Southern Studies in North Carolina in Durham. 'I'm afraid it could happen again.''

The poultry industry in North Carolina has an illness and injury rate of 22.5 per 100 employees, more than double that of the state's entire work force, Hall said.

But corporate and government officials insist more inspectors won't necessarily create a safer environment.

''Just putting more people out there, I don't think is the answer,'' Gov. Jim Martin said. ''I think you've got to have a system where neighbors and workers and community people can help bring attention without reprisals.''

That wasn't much comfort to Doris Fairley, who lost two relatives in the blaze.

''I've got other family, but I feel like I lost everybody,'' she said. ''I still have hostile feelings about that plant up there.''