6 employees dead after liquid nitrogen leak at Gainesville poultry plant

The deadly leak happened Thursday at the Foundation Food Group plant on Memorial Park Drive in Gainesville.

Credit: Hyosub Shin / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

The deadly leak happened Thursday at the Foundation Food Group plant on Memorial Park Drive in Gainesville.

Working in the hardscrabble poultry processing industry is a dangerous job, but death in a freezing fog of liquid nitrogen vapor is not among the assumed risks.

That sudden, brutal fate was shared by six employees of a Gainesville poultry plant Thursday morning after a liquid nitrogen line ruptured, killing them and injuring several of their coworkers and first responders.

Five people died at the scene on Memorial Park Drive, and 12 others were taken to the emergency room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center with injuries, officials said. One of those patients died at the hospital.

All six who died were employees of the Foundation Food Group. Their names have not been released.

“All these folks that came into work today did not have any idea of what would happen, nor did their families,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch told reporters during one of two news conferences near the plant. “They’re not in a profession where you would expect something like this to happen, but here we are.”

Of the remaining 11 patients, three were critical, five were in fair condition and three had been released from the hospital, officials confirmed Thursday afternoon. The hospital was able to take all of the patients needing emergency care despite handling a high volume of COVID-19 patients.

Jameel Freed, one of roughly 130 employees evacuated from the plant, described the chaos immediately after the nitrogen leak around 10:15 a.m.

“I couldn’t see nothing but fog at the bottom of the steps,” Freed told Channel 2 Action News, adding that he was searching for his line leader one floor below him. “It was too thick and I couldn’t go down there so I turned back.”

Multiple agencies responding to hazmat situation at Gainesville plant

The cause of the leak is unknown and remains under investigation, said Hall County Fire Services spokesman Zach Brackett, who added that there was no explosion.

Employees were transported to a nearby church for medical evaluation. Among those hospitalized, three were Gainesville firefighters and one was a Hall County firefighter. Brackett said the Hall firefighter was being treated for respiratory issues and could be released Friday.

Nicholas Ancrum, Foundation Food Group’s vice president of human resources, urged the community to keep the friends and families of those killed in their thoughts and prayers.

“Those lost today include maintenance, supervisory and management team members,” Ancrum said. “Our hearts go out to their families.”

The death investigation will be handled by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, Brackett said, and representatives from both the state’s Fire Marshal’s Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were on the scene Thursday.

The area was deemed safe at 1:40 p.m. and crime scene investigators began to work the scene, Couch said.

Gov. Brian Kemp offered his condolences in a statement Thursday afternoon, calling the incident a “tragedy.”

“Marty, the girls, and I ask all Georgians to join us in praying for the families facing a terrible loss and the other employees who are receiving medical care,” Kemp said.

Nitrogen, which condenses into a liquid at an incredibly cold temperature (minus 320 degrees), is often used to flash-freeze food products. Though gaseous nitrogen is non-reactive and not harmful in small doses, too much of the odorless, colorless vapor can reduce the amount of oxygen in the air and cause asphyxiation. When liquid nitrogen evaporates in large amounts, the vapor can still be extremely cold and cause tissue damage from freeze burns.

Foundation Food Group, a joint venture between Prime-Pak Foods, Inc. and Victory Processing, Inc., is one of many poultry processing plants in the Gainesville area.

Nicknamed the poultry capital of the world, the city is a major reason why Georgia can claim to be the largest poultry producing state in the nation. Many plants are clustered around the North Georgia city, contributing to the Peach State’s $41 billion poultry industry, which directly employs more than 45,000 people.

“Our prayers and concerns go out to everybody affected by it,” said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. “That is certainly felt by everyone in the broader poultry industry.”

The plant has had multiple brushes with OSHA in the past. The meat processor settled for more than $40,000 in 2017 for two separate incidents of accidental amputation, both of which involved employees losing fingers, according to the administration’s records. In 2019, the plant settled for $3,750 for violations involving employee face and eye protection.

Many Hispanic immigrants work in the industry, which has grappled with deadly outbreaks of COVID-19. Nearly 400 of Georgia’s poultry workers tested positive for the disease last year. Two of them, both Hispanic men in their 60s who worked at Fieldale Farms’ poultry plant in Cornelia, succumbed to their illnesses.

“We have really been hit hard in the last few months with different tragedies,” said Vanesa Sarazua, the founder and executive director of Hispanic Alliance Georgia, a nonprofit based in Gainesville that aids immigrants. “This is terrible for our Latino community.”

Some immigrant families made desperate calls to the nonprofit Thursday, asking for information about loved ones who work at the plant, Sarazua said.

“How does something happen like this?” Sarazua said.

— AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles and staff writers Carrie Teegardin and Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.