Officials have identified the six people killed in an apparent liquid nitrogen leak Thursday at Foundation Food Group in Gainesville.
The woman and five men were identified Friday, Jan. 29, 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
Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28, of Gainesville
Five people were found dead on-site and another died at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, according to hospital spokesman Sean Couch.
The bodies were transported to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for an autopsy. Hall County Deputy Coroner Kevin Wetzel said the autopsies were scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 31.
Hall County Fire Services and Gainesville Fire responded just after 10 a.m. Thursday to a report of burns at the plant. Firefighters discovered a large number of employees had evacuated the building.
Division Chief Zach Brackett said there had not been an explosion, which he said was erroneously reported on social media.
“Preliminary indications are that a nitrogen line was ruptured inside the facility,” said Nicholas Ancrum, vice president of human resources for Foundation Food Group. “While we wait for confirmation, we are very sad to say that six team members appear to have died, and others were transported to the hospital with very serious injuries.”
Ancrum said the employees involved were from the maintenance, supervisory and management teams.
“Every team member is equally important to us, and our hearts go out to their families and communities who have suffered such a devastating loss,” he said.
More than 130 people were transported by school bus to Free Chapel for evaluation.
Couch said 12 patients in total were transferred to Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Three of these were Gainesville firefighters and one Hall County firefighter “for an evaluation of respiratory complaints,” Brackett said Thursday.
Eight people were treated and released, and another three were in critical condition as of 6 p.m. Friday. One died at the hospital Thursday.
Gainesville Fire spokesman Keith Smith said all three Gainesville firefighters were checked out of the hospital by 3 p.m. Thursday and sent home to recuperate.
Brackett said the one Hall County firefighter was released from the hospital before lunch Friday and is at home.
The health system has seen more than 270 COVID-19 positive patients since late December and peaked at 355 patients Jan. 8, straining the hospital’s resources. As the numbers have trended downward in the past few weeks, Couch said they still have an expanded capacity. There were 14 beds available at Gainesville’s hospital Thursday, according to NGHS’ data. Couch said bed capacity for the injured was not an issue.
The incident shut down Memorial Park Drive/Road during the late morning and early afternoon.
Students at nearby Lyman Hall Elementary School were safe and indoors, Hall County Schools spokesman Stan Lewis said Thursday.
The scene was deemed safe around 1:40 p.m., Sheriff’s Office spokesman Derreck Booth said.
Brackett said the fire department performed air monitoring at the facility Friday and found “no abnormal readings.”
“Our personnel are demobilizing and returning to service,” Brackett wrote in an email around 2:30 p.m. Friday. “Facility personnel will be continuing to disengage equipment within the facility to facilitate the safety of investigators.”
The Georgia Fire Marshal’s Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were on scene, and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board sent investigators to Gainesville Thursday and Friday.
U.S. Department of Labor regional spokesman Eric Lucero confirmed an OSHA investigation was underway.
"They have made contact with the employer and are starting to compile information right now," he said.
Lucero added that there is an open investigation concerning an employee injury at Prime-Pak in December. No further details are available because the investigation is still open, he said. Authorities initially referred to the site as Prime-Pak, which has merged with Victory Processing Inc. to form Foundation Food Group.
Ancrum did not answer further questions at the news conference, and the business did not answer follow-up questions sent Friday on what policies were in place to help the families affected.
“A lot of these folks that came into work today did not have any idea what would happen, nor did their families,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said. “They’re not in a profession that you would expect something like this to happen.”
Gov. Brian Kemp also responded to the incident, saying, “Our hearts are broken hearing about the 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,” he said.
Georgia state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, also sent a statement on the incident Friday:
“Teresa, the boys, and I are thinking this morning of the six individuals who tragically lost their lives along with those who were injured at Prime Pak Foods in Gainesville yesterday,” Miller said. “This tragedy has shaken Hall County and all of northeast Georgia and is sure to weigh heavily on our hearts in the coming days and weeks. ... Today, I ask you to join my family in praying for the grieving families and all of those in our community who knew and loved them.”
Several fundraising and other efforts have been organized to help the families affected.
Reporter Jeff Gill contributed to this report.
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