Investigations begins after 6 killed by chemical leak at Gainesville food processing plant

Authorities have identified the six people killed in a chemical leak at a Gainesville food processing plant Thursday morning as new details emerge and stories of the harrowing experience.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office identified the victims on Friday as: 45-year-old Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera of Gainesville; 35-year-old Corey Alan Murphy of Clermont; 28-year-old Nelly Perez-Rafael of Gainesville; 41-year-old Saulo Suarez-Bernal of Dawsonville; 38-year-old Victor Vellez of Gainesville; and 28-year-old Edgar Vera-Garcia of Gainesville.

Three workers remained hospitalized Friday in critical condition said Beth Downs, a spokesperson for Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. One person with lesser injuries was released Friday.

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A frantic 911 call was made by a plant employee just after the liquid nitrogen line erupted at Foundation Food Group. In just seconds, five people were dead in a fog of vaporizing liquid nitrogen. A sixth worker died at the hospital hours later.

Dispatcher: "At this time is everybody safe and out of danger?"

Caller: "I don’t know. Is he breathing? Two people not breathing, I got one barely breathing."

Dispatcher: "How many patients are there?"

Caller: "At least four."

Dispatcher: "At least four?"

One of those who did not make it was Jose Elias’ uncle, who was a maintenance man

"It’s tearing me apart. It’s tearing me apart because, you know, he was legit the nicest person I ever met, you know what I mean, he was, you know, I’ve never seen him do any wrong or talk bad about anyone," said Jose Elias, the victim's nephew.

A loved one of 36-year-old Corey Murphy said the family isn't ready to speak publically but they did want everyone to remember him as a father of two who served in the military.

"As a community leader and person who lives in Gainesville. Our heart is broken," said Art Gallegos Jr., Latinos Conservative Organization.

The plant remained closed and ringed by yellow police tape. Scattered flowers, wreaths, and candles were dropped off on the property’s perimeter as memorials.

Hall County firefighters monitored the air quality for additional dangerous chemicals as federal officials began processing the scene.

"The plant will remain closed until all the investigations are complete," Hall County Fire Division Chief Zach Brackett said.

Investigators have begun evaluating equipment at the plant that could have played a role in the leak, but said its location and cause had yet to be determined. The state fire marshal’s office has ruled out a shut-off valve on piping that connects a nitrogen storage tank outside the building to equipment inside, but the agency does not oversee other equipment at the plant, spokesman Weston Burleson said. Burleson referred additional questions to authorities in Hall County, who he said are leading the investigation along with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Maria del Rosario Palacios leads Georgia Familias Unidas, a Latino advocacy group in Gainesville. She said a number of workers told her they developed headaches, apparently from a lack of oxygen. She said workers told her there was a loud noise, and then some workers were rushed into a room at the plant before going outside, with a strong odor indicating the presence of nitrogen.

Workers who weren’t hospitalized were examined after being evacuated to a nearby church, but Palacios said she’s worried that they may have suffered undetected injuries.

"These families need medical attention," Palacios said. "It’s hard convincing folks to go in and get checked out."

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Poultry plants often rely on refrigeration systems that can involve liquid nitrogen.
Refrigeration was not listed in the facility’s previous safety violations in OSHA’s records, according to the Associated Press.

But the plant, previously called Prime Pak Foods, has been cited numerous times by the agency. FOX 5’s Emilie Ikeda noted two separate incidents in 2017 that involved employees getting fingers severed off after getting their hands stuck in equipment.

Four in every 100 meat processing workers suffered a notable workplace injury in 2019, according to federal statistics.

Even more disturbing, some family members now alleged Foundation Food Group already knew about the leak. FOX 5 was not able to get a response from the company on that accusation.

"There were two people that had already passed out, apparently the supervisors were notified. They said they would check up on it and, I guess, they never did, and the six more people passed out," Elias said. "I heard from somebody else that worked there that the leak has been going on for three years. It's been a problem for three years."

"They are very concerned, even the employees who are employees now. They're concerned and a little bit scared of what’s next. What's gonna happen? Can they come back? Will it be safe to come back?" Gallegos said.

Gainesville is the hub of Georgia’s poultry industry, which is the largest in the country. Thousands of employees work across multiple processing plants around the city and much of the workforce, like in many meat-processing plants nationwide, is Latino.

St. Michael Roman Catholic Church in Gainesville has parishioners who work at the plant where the leak occurred, and Deacon Ken Lampert said he was worried about how the victims’ families would cope financially. The community is not affluent, and incomes often support extended families.

"When out of the blue mom and dad went to work yesterday and they didn’t come home tonight, it’s devastating," he said. "We will rally around them and take care of them and make sure that life goes on."

"We can rally together, bring some peace through to families through prayer, through faith," Gallegos said.

The community held a vigil on Saturday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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