‘I’m standing with a guy who’s been frozen.’ 911 call reveals deadly horror at poultry plant

January 28, 2021 Gainesville - Foundation Food Group where six people were killed and several others were injured Thursday after a liquid nitrogen line ruptured in Gainesville on Thursday, January 28, 2021. Multiple agencies responded to the incident, which happened at a Foundation Food Group poultry plant on Memorial Park Drive at 10:12 a.m., Hall County Fire Services spokesman Zach Brackett said during a news conference. When crews arrived at the scene about 10:20 a.m., they determined the incident involved hazardous materials and called in a hazmat team.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
January 28, 2021 Gainesville - Foundation Food Group where six people were killed and several others were injured Thursday after a liquid nitrogen line ruptured in Gainesville on Thursday, January 28, 2021. Multiple agencies responded to the incident, which happened at a Foundation Food Group poultry plant on Memorial Park Drive at 10:12 a.m., Hall County Fire Services spokesman Zach Brackett said during a news conference. When crews arrived at the scene about 10:20 a.m., they determined the incident involved hazardous materials and called in a hazmat team.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

After the line ruptured, nitrogen spewed and formed a deadly cloud in the poultry processing plant.

Dozens of workers fled the North Georgia facility Thursday morning after the mysterious leak. A few fell, the gas claiming them. Nitrogen, often used to flash-freeze food, is odorless, colorless and can reduce the oxygen in the air, cause asphyxiation or burns from the cold.

The plant manager dialed 911, begging Hall County authorities to rush to the scene. “Oh my God,” Zach Hoover said, according to audio of the call, released Friday. “I’m standing with a guy who’s been frozen.”

Six people died in the incident at Foundation Food Group, Inc. in Gainesville, the heart of Georgia’s dominant poultry industry. The victims were identified as Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45, of Gainesville; Corey Alan Murphy, 35, of Clermont; Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28, of Gainesville; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41, of Dawsonville; Victor Vellez, 38, of Gainesville; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28, of Gainesville.

As questions persisted about the cause of the leak, details were slow to emerge about the victims.

Murphy was identified as a military veteran and father. “He was a loving father, devoted husband, caring son, and the best brother and uncle,” a loved one said on a GoFundMe page that quickly eclipsed its goal of $10,000 for the family. “He was an avid horse trainer and rider, an excellent soldier, and never met a stranger.”

Photos on the page showed a man laughing at his wedding, on horses with his kids, posing in a camouflage uniform.

The victims’ remains were transported to the GBI for autopsy, authorities said. On Friday, three employees remained in critical condition and one was in fair condition, according to a spokeswoman for Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Seven others were treated at the hospital and released.

Foundation Food Group, the plant’s owner, formed on Jan. 1 after a merger between Prime Pak Foods and Victory Processing, according to state business records. Efforts to reach the company Friday weren’t successful.

The plant has had multiple brushes with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The meat processor settled for more than $40,000 in 2017 for two separate incidents, both involving employees losing fingers, according to OSHA records. In 2019, the facility settled for $3,750 for violations involving worker face and eye protection.

The poultry industry, whose largest production state is Georgia, has suffered new hazards amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 400 poultry workers in Georgia tested positive for the disease last year. Employees often work in close proximity on production lines.

Labor rights advocates mourned the Gainesville deaths and said they should’ve been prevented. The facility isn’t unionized.

“Between the COVID-19 pandemic and incidents such as (this) tragedy, Georgia’s workers have been the subject of abuse for far too long,” read a statement from the Georgia AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor union federation.

Staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this report.

In Other News