Feds give details on deadly Gainesville plant leak as community mourns

Hundreds turn out at a prayer vigil Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, to remember the victims of a deadly incident at the Foundation Food Group poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia. (Photo: Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)
Hundreds turn out at a prayer vigil Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, to remember the victims of a deadly incident at the Foundation Food Group poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia. (Photo: Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Mourners knelt in front of six white floral wreaths near a Gainesville poultry processing plant Saturday, grieving the loss of six workers killed in a chemical leak two days earlier.

Shoes sank into the mud. Cries punctured the quiet. Whispered words offered comfort to loved ones, who still don’t know what caused Thursday’s fatal liquid nitrogen release at Foundation Food Group.

Earlier Saturday, in a hotel conference room less than two miles away, federal investigators said they’re looking into the breach in the plant’s liquid nitrogen system, major portions of which were installed and commissioned in the past four to six weeks.

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“During this on-scene portion of our investigation, we will not be determining or speculating as to the probable cause,” said Katherine Lemos, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s chairman and CEO. “It’s our civic duty to make sure that we consider all of the potentials and not rule out others too quickly.”

The processing plant uses liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze chicken, and the “inadvertent release” happened on one of the plant’s five production lines, she said.

Katherine Lemos, the federal Chemical Safety Board’s chairman and CEO, speaks during a news conference Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Gainesville, Georgia. (Photo: Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)
Katherine Lemos, the federal Chemical Safety Board’s chairman and CEO, speaks during a news conference Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Gainesville, Georgia. (Photo: Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Lemos said the plant received two to three 18-wheeler truckloads per day of liquid nitrogen, a quantity she described as “a lot.”

She said shortly after the problem was discovered, a worker cut off the nitrogen supply.

“The maintenance manager described personally closing the isolation valves of the tanks in the parking lot subsequent to the event, shutting off the supply to the building, which limited the potential damage or consequence,” she said.

About a dozen people were injured and taken to a hospital, and 130 people were evacuated.

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Hundreds of the victims’ families, friends and co-workers attended a Saturday afternoon vigil.

They walked as one group across the street to pay their respects in front of the wreaths with ribbons that read “empleados planta” — or plant employees. One wreath for each victim, whose names were read out loud.

A series of speakers, including pastors, stood in the bed of a pickup truck as they addressed the crowd. Interpreters made sure both English- and Spanish-speaking listeners could understand. Many Hispanic immigrants work in the state’s poultry industry.

“We are one community,” said Art Gallegos Jr., president of the Latinos Conservative Organization, which helped organize the vigil.

All of Gainesville stands with the families, said George Wangemann, a city councilman.

“I want you to know that I love you,” he said. “Your presence here today is very significant.”

Nicholas Ancrum, Foundation Food Group’s vice president of human resources, told those gathered that “sorrow fills our hearts.”

“We are truly heartbroken, but seeing everybody here today helps give us strength. To the families and friends, lean on each other. This hurts,” he said.

Earlier, mourners arranged bouquets of white and orange flowers, two wooden crosses and a handful of prayer candles at a smaller memorial on the side of Centennial Drive. Yellow caution tape still fluttered in the breeze outside the plant.

Flowers and candles are seen outside the Foundation Food Group poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia, on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. (Photo: Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)
Flowers and candles are seen outside the Foundation Food Group poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia, on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. (Photo: Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Lemos offered her sympathies to the families of the victims in a statement that she delivered in both English and Spanish at Saturday’s news conference.

“I can’t imagine the loss you’re feeling today and the reason we are here is to prevent this from happening again,” she said.

The Chemical Safety Board’s work is ongoing, and Lemos said a full report could take several years. The board makes safety recommendations but does not issue citations or fines.

The plant is owned by Gainesville-based Foundation Food Group, which formed Jan. 1, after Prime-Pak Foods and Victory Processing merged, according to state records.

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