Major portions of the liquid nitrogen system at a Gainesville, GA poultry plant were installed weeks before a line ruptured on January 28 killing six people and hospitalizing 12 others. Transcripts of 911 calls published by 11alive.com reveal the horror and chaos that unfolded that morning when, shortly after 10 a.m., a liquid nitrogen line burst on Line 4 in Plant 4 of Foundation Food Group, formerly Prime Pak Foods.

One hundred and thirty people were evacuated from the plant located at 2076 Memorial Park Road. Now they are struggling to cope with their shared trauma while providing comfort to the grieving families of their co-workers.

Liquid nitrogen is used to flash-freeze poultry. To be kept in a liquid state, nitrogen must be stored at a temperature of -320˚ F. Above this temperature, nitrogen becomes a gas. When it converts from liquid to gas, it expands 695 times in volume and can dramatically reduce oxygen levels. So, a ruptured line poses two immediate risks for anyone nearby, cryogenic burns and asphyxiation. All of the people who were hospitalized were experiencing respiratory distress. Three of them remain in critical condition.

The day after the incident, the Hall County Sheriff’s office released the names of the six employees 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
  • Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28, of Gainesville

In a January 30 press conference, U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman and CEO Katherine A. Lemos, Ph.D, who is part of a team investigating the incident, said major portions of the liquid nitrogen system at Foundation Foods were installed four to six weeks before the deadly incident.

The system consists of two parts: holding tanks on the exterior of the building and cryogenic distribution system on the inside of the plant. So far, the CSB has been able to determine that Messer, which has U.S. headquarters in Bridgewater, NJ, and describes itself as “the largest privately-owned industrial gases company,” supplied the exterior tanks. Each day, two or three 18-wheelers roll in to fill the tanks for Plant 4, Lemos said. After learning of the leak, a Foundation Foods maintenance employee ran to shut the valves to those tanks likely saving some lives.

The CSB has not yet been able to determine which company supplied the cryogenic distribution system or whether the equipment was new or refurbished, Lemos said. The team is also working to discover why tools were found on the ground near the equipment, she said.

A review of OSHA inspections past safety violations at the plant. Between 2015 and 2019, the company was cited with 26 safety violations. Twice in 2017, these violations were associated with injuries that resulted in amputations. OSHA conducted two inspections in 2020, one of which occurred in late December.  Details, including any potential violations, have not been added to those records yet.

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