Jessica Childers shared dozens of lunches and laughs together with Nelly Perez and Edgar Vera-Garcia. But on Thursday, as she and co-workers evacuated the Foundation Food Group plant, her friends were nowhere to be seen.
She later learned heartbreaking news. Her friends were among six workers killed in a liquid nitrogen leak at the plant.
“It hurts because it could’ve been me. I could’ve been stuck, I could’ve been Edgar or Nelly,” Childers said. “Now I’m here at their vigil instead of at work laughing with them.”
Childers was among more than a hundred people who gathered Saturday afternoon, braving cold, windy weather, to pay tribute and remember the victims.
The group met across the street from the plant, where pastors and other speakers prayed for the families and the community. At one point, the crowd was directed to go across the street, where people lit candles and placed flowers at six wreaths planted in front of the poultry processing company off Memorial Park Drive.
Some kneeled to pray. Some sobbed as they prayed.
“We are one community, we are one family,” said Art Gallegos Jr. of the Latinos Conservative Organization and organizer of the event, as people made their way to the wreaths.
Several efforts are being organized to provide help to those affected by the incident, and Gallegos said he is working to coordinate additional help.
Childers, who left candles and flowers at the wreath in honor of her friends, said Perez and Vera-Garcia would’ve “been proud” of the community coming together during the vigil to support the victims and families affected.
As hundreds prayed over the victims, Childers thought about Vera-Garcia’s jokes and “loud laugh” and Perez’s “fun, kind soul.” She said returning to work without her friends will never feel the same.
“If I would’ve known that was our last lunch together I would’ve cherished it and told them how thankful I am for all the laughs,” Childers said.
Rhonda, a Foundation Food Group employee who did not give her last name due to fears of repercussions from the company, said she’s still in disbelief.
She said her first thoughts when she heard of the incident was, “This has to be a nightmare.”
Rhonda remembered the victims, praising their work ethic, positive attitude and strong character.
She said the company hasn’t notified her about when they’ll reopen for business, although she said it’s difficult to imagine walking into the building again.
Every machine, room and smell will remind her of the incident and the deaths that occurred, Rhonda said.
“I can’t even remember the last thing I said to them, I didn’t know it would be our last time together, working and laughing,” she said in Spanish.
Rhonda said she felt her late co-workers' spirits while at the vigil, remembering them with white roses she put at the wreaths.
Another woman who declined to give her name because of immigration status concerns said she attended the vigil to pray for families less fortunate than hers. She said her brother was working at the plant on Thursday when he noticed some of his co-workers failed to evacuate the building when told, and he rushed back inside.
As he entered one side of the building to search for his co-workers, he suddenly felt a cold sensation run through his upper body. He said he called out for anyone on the floor but no one answered.
After a few minutes, he felt dizzy to the point of passing out and ran outside for air. He was later hospitalized and returned home safely.
Since the incident, the woman said her brother has experienced panic attacks and trouble sleeping. She said he doesn’t feel right knowing he survived while others died.
As the crowd lifted their hands to pray Saturday, the woman said she thanked God for saving her brother that day. She prayed for the safety of factory and plant workers everywhere. She prayed Gainesville would never experience another tragedy like this again.
“My brother was saved but his heart is broken,” the woman said in Spanish. “The community feels defeated, but we all came today to pray, to mourn and try to heal. But Gainesville will never be the same. The six victims are irreplaceable people in our community.”
During the vigil, there were several calls for family and friends of the victims to speak to the crowd if they wished. No one came forward.
Others in the community, such as Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann, spoke to the crowd.
“I want you to know that I love you and my heart goes out to the families who were affected by this accident,” he said. “We are one community and your presence here today is very significant. I ask that God’s blessings be with all of you.”
The crowd also heard from Nicholas Ancrum, vice president of human resources for Foundation Food Group.
“Thank you for being here to honor those we have lost today,” he said. “I want to mention and honor these names again so they’re never forgotten and always remembered.”
Ancrum named those who died: 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.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our friends, our team members,” Ancrum said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and our community during this most difficult time.
“We ask you to join us as we grieve for our associates and their loved ones.”
Gallegos, speaking after the vigil, said, “It’s really overwhelming to see the community respond. It’s so diverse. This is so important … and just shows we’re all hurting and we’re all family, and we support and love each other.”
He said his main message to the community, and especially those affected, would be “don’t lose your faith, don’t allow fear to take over your faith. The love we had for our loved ones that are no longer here is going to help us keep their memory alive.”
Interviews with a woman identified as Rhonda and an unidentified woman were conducted in Spanish and translated into English by Gabriela Miranda. Times reporter Jeff Gill contributed to this article.