On January 28, 2021, Maria del Rosario Palacios spent the bulk of her day calling loved one after loved one to make sure they were still alive.
It was likely a common experience across Gainesville, the North Georgia city at the heart of the state’s dominant poultry sector, where most everybody knows somebody with ties to the industry. Earlier that day, a line carrying nitrogen had ruptured at an area facility, releasing a colorless, odorless – and deadly – cloud. Often used to flash-freeze meat, nitrogen can displace the oxygen in the air, and lead to asphyxiation.
“There was a lot of worry about who had passed, who was in the hospital, and just where our people were,” said Palacios, a former poultry worker turned immigrant community advocate.
Six people wound up dead, at least a dozen more injured. When federal workplace safety officials announced nearly $1 million in fines over the leak at the conclusion of a months-long investigation, they described the loss of life in Gainesville as a “very preventable tragedy.”
Two years later, the horror at the Foundation Food Group facility where the leak happened continues to loom large. The memory of the accident is turning an already demanding and physically taxing job into one fraught with anxiety. Workers clock in with fear that they won’t be able to return home after their shift, according to local labor advocates, who also complain of a re-traumatizing and contentious litigation process.
The grief continues to be especially raw among Gainesville’s Hispanic community, which accounts for roughly 40% of the city’s population, and five out of the six Jan. 28 fatalities.
“Just yesterday, I had a call with a worker that was crying because the anniversary [of the leak] was coming up. And they were reliving everything that went down. They were somebody that worked on the floor where it occurred,” said Stephanie Lopez-Burgos, a legal advocate at Sur Legal, an immigrant and workers’ rights non-profit. “It’s real to them. It still feels like it just happened yesterday.”
“Everybody eats chicken. But people don’t realize what it takes for that chicken to get to their table. The sacrifices workers make.”
Among those who lost their lives on Jan. 28 are Nelly Perez and Edgar Vera-Garcia, both 28 years old at the time of their death. They left behind a daughter, Ximena. She was three years old when her parents died at work and is now five. She’s under the care of an aunt.
“She’s a very bright, very sweet young lady,” said Matt Cook, an attorney working on Ximena’s behalf. “Can you imagine making your way through this world with no parents?”
Also perished on Jan. 28, 2021: Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45; Corey Alan Murphy, 35; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41 and Victor Vellez, 38.
Cristian Faur worked in maintenance at Foundation Food Group. On Jan. 28, 2021, he ran towards the site of the leak to try to rescue Ximena’s mom. He was overcome by the nitrogen gas and collapsed, hitting his face as he fell. That’s according to Cook, who filed a lawsuit on Faur’s and two other injured workers’ behalf, alleging mental and physical pain.
Cook says that, after roughly 25 years working in the poultry industry, Faur quit in the wake of the accident, and moved with his family out of town.
“He totally changed jobs. He never wants to see Gainesville again,” Cook said.
For many immigrant workers, that mobility is out of reach. Pressure to provide for children here and, in many cases, for relatives in Latin America means going just days without work to relocate or switch industries could be devastating. Those in the country without legal status feel especially out of options, since moving or job seeking could draw undue attention.
Hall County, where Gainesville sits, remains one of just five Georgia jurisdictions that deputizes local law enforcement to act as immigration agents. As a result, community advocates say infractions such as driving without a license can put immigrants at risk of deportation.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
In the wake of the Jan. 28 leak, fear of the authorities kept many workers from undergoing medical checks. Advocates say many were also hesitant to collaborate with federal investigators. Reluctance to step out of the shadows is a routine experience in Gainesville, where 65% of the foreign-born population lacks legal status – the highest proportion out of all U.S. metro areas, according to a Pew Research Center report.
“They have no choice [but to continue working in poultry plants]. They have to work with what they have in their reach,” Lopez-Burgos said.
That immobility can have dangerous consequences, putting workers at risk of exploitation.
“You have to think about that, when a person feels so trapped into a situation where they can’t leave an employer, that sets them up to be in very dangerous conditions, when you have no other options,” Palacios said.
In just a 14-month span following the nitrogen incident, two additional chemical leaks and spills hit the same poultry plant, triggering evacuations and worker distress. In March 2021, the unexpected release of ammonia exposed workers to respiratory hazards. A subsequent investigation identified 23 safety and health violations at the facility, located on Gainesville’s Memorial Park Drive. Exactly one year later, a pungent odor filled the air after approximately 100 gallons of bleach spilled out. By then, the plant had changed ownership, from Foundation Food Group to Gold Creek Foods.
Lopez-Burgos said the recurring leaks have frayed workers’ nerves. They also continue to struggle with the weight of the tragedy that unfurled two years ago.
“From a worker’s perspective, they have a lot of survivor’s guilt,” Lopez-Burgos said. “That still weighs heavy on them. Their colleagues are their family, they work long hours together. That’s who they’re with the most. And losing them was difficult.”
Company sanctioned during litigation
In the months following the nitrogen leak, six wrongful death cases were filed by the victims’ families, in addition to multiple personal injury suits. The litigation has focused on Messer Gas, the company that installed the liquid nitrogen system at the poultry facility.
Foundation Food Group wasn’t named in the families’ lawsuits.
The litigation process has been marked by multiple rounds of sanctions against Messer imposed by judges in Gwinnett County, the site of the company’s area headquarters.
In December, Gwinnett County State Court Judge Emily Brantley sanctioned Messer over the withholding of hundreds of documents from the discovery process “under unsupported claims” of attorney-client privilege and work product protection. The company had previously been penalized for throwing away a machine part that should have been preserved for testing. A judge at the time said the trashed evidence could have been critical to plaintiffs’ case, and called Messer’s conduct “shockingly unacceptable and at best … grossly negligent.”
“It is truly the essence of adding insult to injury,” Cook, the attorney, said.
A Messer spokeswoman told the AJC that the company had not intentionally destroyed evidence.
“Nearing the two year anniversary of the tragedy at [Foundation Food Group], we understand the heartbreaking loss experienced by the families of the deceased,” the Messer spokeswoman, Amy Ficon, said via email this week. “Messer is committed to the shared goal of finding the causes of this incident and doing our part to prevent such an incident from ever happening again.”
Ficon also noted that the company “has cooperated and continues to cooperate” with federal investigators.
According to reporting from the Gainesville Times, most of the families’ lawsuits have been settled. But among those still waiting on a resolution to their case is five-year-old Ximena. By the time the next anniversary of the leak comes around, she will have spent half her life without her parents.
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