Investigators Seek Cause of Nitrogen Leak that Killed 6 at Georgia Poultry Plant

The investigation into a deadly liquid nitrogen leak at a Georgia poultry plant continued Saturday with authorities saying they were trying to determine what caused a break in the recently installed system.

Six workers died on Thursday after the liquid nitrogen release at Foundation Food Group. About a dozen others were injured and taken to a hospital, and 130 people had to be evacuated. The search for answers came as several hundred people attended a Saturday afternoon vigil outside the plant, several sobbing for loved ones who died.

Separately, Katherine Lemos, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s chairman and chief executive, said Saturday that major portions of the plant’s liquid nitrogen’s interior and exterior system were installed and commissioned in the past four to six weeks, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

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

Lemos also said that shortly after the leak 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.

Lemos said the agency will not speculate on what caused the rupture. A full report could take several years.

Chemical Safety Board investigators charged with finding the cause of chemical incidents have been at the site since Thursday. The board makes safety recommendations but does not issue citations or fines.

Investigators have begun evaluating equipment at the plant that could have played a role in the leak, but said its location and cause had yet to be determined. The state fire marshal’s office has ruled out a shut-off valve on piping that connects a nitrogen storage tank outside the building to equipment inside, but the agency does not oversee other equipment at the plant, spokesman Weston Burleson said.

Gainesville is the hub of Georgia’s poultry industry, which is the largest in the country. Thousands of employees work across multiple processing plants around the city and much of the workforce is Latino, like those in many meat-processing plants nationwide. Mexico has said two of the dead in the leak were citizens of that nation.

Several hundred people attended Saturday afternoon’s vigil outside the plant.

Loved ones wept as they knelt in front of six white floral wreaths with white ribbons, one for each worker killed. People brought flowers and stuffed animals. A series of speakers, including pastors, stood in the bed of a pickup truck and addressed the crowd. Interpreters made sure both English- and Spanish-speaking listeners could understand.

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

Earlier, mourners arranged bouquets of white and orange flowers, two wooden crosses and a handful of prayer candles. The small memorial on the side of a roadway remained one of the few signs of the tragedy.

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.

Workers at the plant have recounted harrowing experiences of escaping through a fog of vaporizing liquid nitrogen as they fled the leak.

Foundation Food Group’s plant seen from the Memorial Drive entrance in Gainesville, Ga., Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Workers at the northeast Georgia poultry plant said they escaped through a fog of vaporizing liquid nitrogen that killed six of their coworkers, as an investigation continued Friday into the cause of the leak at Foundation Food Group. (Scott Rogers/The Times via AP)

Three workers remained hospitalized Friday in critical condition said Beth Downs, a spokesperson for Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. One person with lesser injuries was released Friday.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office identified the victims on Friday as: 45-year-old Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera of Gainesville; 35-year-old Corey Alan Murphy of Clermont; 28-year-old Nelly Perez-Rafael of Gainesville; 41-year-old Saulo Suarez-Bernal of Dawsonville; 38-year-old Victor Vellez of Gainesville; and 28-year-old Edgar Vera-Garcia of Gainesville.

Workers poured out of the plant Thursday morning after a liquid nitrogen line burst. The plant processes chicken into items such as nuggets and then freezes them for later use.

Jameel Fareed told WSB-TV that he avoided walking into the cloud of liquid nitrogen.

“First we just thought there was something wrong with the freezer. Then they started saying, ‘Get out,”’ Fareed said. “I just saw the fog, and when I couldn’t see down the steps, I turned around. But I didn’t feel anything.”

Recordings of calls to emergency officials obtained by local news outlets revealed panicked moments inside the plant Thursday.

“I’ve got a phone call from one of my employees saying that I’ve got a person who could potentially be frozen from liquid nitrogen,” one caller told 911, panting as a siren sounded in the background, in a call obtained by WXIA-TV. “He’s foaming at the mouth, eyes are open, struggling. I see some firemen inside. He’s breathing very slowly.”

Maria del Rosario Palacios leads Georgia Familias Unidas, a Latino advocacy group in Gainesville. She said a number of workers told her they developed headaches, apparently from a lack of oxygen. She said workers told her there was a loud noise, and then some workers were rushed into a room at the plant before going outside, with a strong odor indicating the presence of nitrogen.

St. Michael Roman Catholic Church in Gainesville has parishioners who work at the plant where the leak occurred, and Deacon Ken Lampert said he was worried about how the victims’ families would cope financially. The community is not affluent, and incomes often support extended families.

“When out of the blue mom and dad went to work yesterday and they didn’t come home tonight, it’s devastating,” he said. “We will rally around them and take care of them and make sure that life goes on.”

Associated Press Reporters Jeff Amy and Sudhin Thanawala contributed to this report.