A deadly day at a Georgia poultry plant, an aching aftermath

A deadly day at a Georgia poultry plant, an aching aftermath

After nitrogen leak, 6 victims remembered while survivors assess scars

GAINESVILLE — It wasn’t like her to cry at work.

Nelly Perez, a 28-year-old who often took her little girl to Mass during time off, was typically calm even after accidents at the poultry plant. But now she was on the phone, reporting an accident to a co-worker, and she was crying.

Yamilex Estrada, 25, taking the call on the other side of the building, couldn’t make out if Perez said how bad it was. But the tears told Estrada this was serious.

”Something big,” Estrada said this week in an interview.

It was big.

A line carrying nitrogen, often used to flash-freeze meat, had ruptured, releasing a frigid, odorless cloud. It spread like morning fog, killing six employees on Jan. 28. In this hilly North Georgia city at the heart of the state’s dominant poultry industry, they buy nitrogen by the 18-wheeler. Nitrogen can reduce the oxygen in the air, cause asphyxiation or cold burns.

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Grief rains on Gainesville, a town where most everybody knows somebody with time in at a poultry plant, and so many know someone who worked at the Foundation Food Group, Inc. facility where the leak happened.

Those lost were a beloved group. They included a man who toiled to send money to his mother in Mexico, religious and determined people pounding out a better lot, a gregarious military veteran who trained horses and men who bought their wives flowers at Nena’s Florist near the plant. Nearly all had young children.

Perez, who spent her ending alerting co-workers so they could escape the danger, did not survive.

“She always cared for others,” Estrada said of her friend.

When Estrada learned the names, she discovered a painful truth: she knew all six victims.

‘Screaming’

After Estrada hung up with Perez, she says she alerted the plant manager and retreated to her office. Estrada and Perez worked closely in the facility’s quality control department, which checks on machines and birds before shipping.

Estrada knew nearly nothing about what was happening, except for what Perez had said: two maintenance men had been in some kind of accident.

Nelly Gisel Perez Rafael
Photo from Memorial Park Funeral Homes
Nelly Gisel Perez Rafael Photo from Memorial Park Funeral Homes

She thought of how pained Perez’s voice had sounded. It scared Estrada. For herself and everyone else. Not knowing what to do, the 25-year-old donned her safety smock and walked toward the warehouse.

“That’s when I started hearing all the ladies screaming,” Estrada said.

She saw people running outside into the biting morning air. Some had to race through the deadly fog to free themselves. Estrada saw a maintenance man who’d apparently been near the leak, and she noticed him struggling to breathe.

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The dangers

They worked with poultry in Gainesville because, for many, that’s what you do here.

After World War II, the city dove deep in the industry and still contributes greatly to Georgia’s nation-leading $41 billion business. All over the world, Peach State chickens appear on plates. During this weekend’s Super Bowl Sunday parties, revelers somewhere will surely eat wings processed by the Gainesville victims.

Gainesville is proud of its birds. Here, streets are named for innovators in chicken processing. In a 1961 publicity stunt, Gainesville, the so-called “Poultry Capital of the World,” made it illegal to eat chicken with a fork; an officer pranked a 91-year-old woman with an “arrest” in 2009 for violating the law.

03/02/2021 —Gainesville, Georgia — A monument celebrating Gainesville’s position as the “Poultry Capitol of the World” is displayed at Poultry Park in Gainesville, Tuesday, February 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/02/2021 —Gainesville, Georgia — A monument celebrating Gainesville’s position as the “Poultry Capitol of the World” is displayed at Poultry Park in Gainesville, Tuesday, February 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The poultry business often subjects employees to punishing labor. You might work long hours in putrid, cramped conditions. You might remove beaks or bones, twisting your wrist too many times. You might spend a great deal of time around machines that can maim or kill you.

People like Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45, pushed past the hazards with purpose. When he fell amid the chaos, he’d been in America nearly 20 years, usually working seven days a week, hardly relaxing or doing anything for himself so that he could send as much cash as possible to his mom in Mexico.

“He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, and he didn’t like to go out,” said his nephew, Carlos, who asked to be identified only by his first name due to immigration concerns. “I think he lived for his mom.”

Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera
Family photo
Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera Family photo

Recently, workers installed a new freezing system in the plant, switching from ammonia to nitrogen-based, regulators said. It isn’t clear what caused the leak, but the nitrogen line ruptured during “unscheduled maintenance,” according to initial findings released by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Plant representatives couldn’t be reached for comment.

Carlos said his uncle worked in maintenance, but Carlos doesn’t know exactly what happened to him.

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‘Save you and raise you up’

After the leak, plant manager Zach Hoover placed a series of 911 calls.

“Oh my God,” he said in one.

In another: “I’m standing with a guy who’s been frozen.”

Dispatcher: “How many patients are there?”

Hoover: “I’ve got two people not breathing and one barely breathing.”

After authorities responded, a bus came to ferry dozens of workers from the parking lot to a nearby church for medical evaluation. Some left without treatment because they feared trouble with their immigration status. Gainesville’s poultry workforce is heavily Hispanic and immigrant, though many have deep roots in town.

Over at the local hospital, Father Cong Nguyen from St. Michael Roman Catholic Church was on chaplain duty.

He was summoned to the emergency room. A dying man from the plant needed anointment. The priest administered last rites: May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.

As word of the accident tore through town, phones started ringing at local immigrant aid organizations and the Catholic churches. Callers, voices desperate, were trying to find anyone who might know if their loved ones were OK. The voices sounded worse after they learned their loved ones were not OK.

On the grass outside the plant, a memorial of flowers, prayer candles and stuffed animals rose, diesel from the trucking company nearby overwhelming the scent of bouquets.

“Muy difficil,” a mourning woman told a Channel 2 Action News reporter at her door.

As Estrada wonders if she could stand going back to the plant, she mourns the colleagues she lost. “I talked to all these people daily,” she said. “They were always there for me.”

03/02/2021 —Gainesville, Georgia — Yamilex Estrada, 28, wears a t-shirt bearing images of José Elías Cabrera, one of the victims of the hazardous chemical spill, in Gainesville, Tuesday, February 2, 2021. Estrada was working at Foundation Food Group the day the accident took place and says she spoke with one of the victims before they passed away from exposure to the liquid nitrogen. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/02/2021 —Gainesville, Georgia — Yamilex Estrada, 28, wears a t-shirt bearing images of José Elías Cabrera, one of the victims of the hazardous chemical spill, in Gainesville, Tuesday, February 2, 2021. Estrada was working at Foundation Food Group the day the accident took place and says she spoke with one of the victims before they passed away from exposure to the liquid nitrogen. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The leak led labor and immigrant rights advocates to demand answers and stronger safety standards, and it shook surviving employees. They need work, medical treatment, money, counseling and legal guidance, according to aid workers. “Some feel guilty. Others feel that they can’t possibly go back,” said Vanesa Sarazua, executive director of local nonprofit Hispanic Alliance Georgia.

Many can’t sleep. Some wake up screaming.

ExploreFeds give details on deadly Gainesville plant leak as community mourns

Those lost, those left

The night after the tragedy, candles lit the sanctuary at St. Michael Roman Catholic Church. A woman sang a hymn over a piano played softly.

The parish had planned an Hora Santa de Sanación (Holy Hour of Healing) for victims of COVID-19, which has spread undaunted in poultry and other meatpacking plants. But leaders at St. Michael knew they must also use the hour to honor the nitrogen leak victims. Several were members here.

Deacon Ken Lampert said he saw 200 or more people walk in, wearing masks, keeping their distance. Bold red crosses had been taped on the pews to mark six feet. To stay safe, some went to an overflow room where they watched the service on a big-screen TV.

Parishioners knelt on the cushions in front of their seats. The music stopped. The room was silent, dark, candlelight quivering.

On a table up front stood the monstrance, a tall ornate vessel of gold in which consecrated bread is stored for Communion. A seminarian named Carlos Lopez had written each victim’s name on a piece of paper and taped it to the monstrance, to connect them to the Lord.

There was Nelly Gisel Perez-Rafael, 28, who colleagues just called Nelly Perez, and there was Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45.

Corey Alan Murphy, 35. He was the horse trainer, a Kentucky native recalled as a devoted father and U.S. Army veteran with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41. “Our beloved Saulo,” a loved one wrote on GoFundMe. “God called him home and even though we miss him, we trust His plan.”

Victor Vellez, 38. Deacon Lampert knew him from St. Michael’s, where he’d attended with his wife and two sons. “His wife,” Lampert said, “has had a very difficult time.”

Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28. He had three children and was one of the Nena’s Florist customers. The other day, he stopped in the small, vibrant gift shop, where the smell of lilies and roses wafts. He wanted an early start searching for a Valentine’s Day present for his wife. He planned to buy the flowers closer to the holiday. He thought he had time.

(From left) Saulo Suarez-Bernal, Corey Alan Murphy and Edgar Uriel Vera-Garcia. 
Photos of Saulo Suarez-Bernal and Edgar Uriel Vera-Garcia from Memorial Park Funeral Homes
Photo of Corey Alan Murphy from Norris-New Funeral Home
(From left) Saulo Suarez-Bernal, Corey Alan Murphy and Edgar Uriel Vera-Garcia. Photos of Saulo Suarez-Bernal and Edgar Uriel Vera-Garcia from Memorial Park Funeral Homes Photo of Corey Alan Murphy from Norris-New Funeral Home

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HOW WE GOT THE STORY: After six poultry plant workers died in a horrific incident, The AJC spent days pouring over government and police statements and records, including 911 audio. The paper interviewed people who knew the victims and local aid workers helping the victims’ families and survivors, as were others around Gainesville and experts. Information from the victims’ obituaries was also used.

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