6 killed in liquid nitrogen leak at Georgia poultry plant

A line carrying liquid nitrogen ruptured at a poultry processing plant in Georgia on Thursday morning, killing at least six people and injuring 11 others, officials said.

Firefighters responded at 10:12 a.m. to a report of burns at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Georgia, about 55 miles northeast of Atlanta, Zach Brackett, a Hall County fire division chief, said at a news conference.

Once there, firefighters found a “large contingent of employees that had evacuated, along with multiple victims that were in that crowd that were also experiencing medical emergencies around the facility,” Brackett said.

Five people were found dead inside the plant and a sixth person died after being taken to the emergency department at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, according to Beth Downs, a medical center spokesperson.

Three others at the medical center were in critical condition and five, including one firefighter, were in fair condition, Downs said. Another three who had been taken to the hospital were released, she added. All those who were hospitalized had respiratory problems.

An additional 130 people were taken by school buses to a church for evaluation by medical personnel from Northeast Georgia Health System, Brackett said.

Nicholas Ancrum, the vice president of human resources at Foundation Food Group, said that a “tragic accident” had occurred at the plant, which had been called the Prime Pak Foods plant until it was taken over by the Foundation Food Group, a poultry company with headquarters in Gainesville, earlier this month.

“Preliminary indications are that a nitrogen line ruptured inside the facility,” Ancrum said at a news conference. “Those lost today include maintenance, supervisory and management team members. 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.”

Ancrum said that the company had immediately evacuated 130 employees and had taken steps to protect others and the surrounding area from exposure.

“Foundation Food Group takes workplace safety very seriously, and works constantly to adopt and implement the most effective safety programs available to the industry,” Ancrum said. “Until this investigation is completed, we cannot say with confidence precisely how this accident occurred.”

Brackett confirmed that authorities were investigating what he called a “leak of unknown cause” that had occurred at the plant. The Georgia state fire marshal, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were among the agencies involved in the investigation. Liquid nitrogen can be used to rapidly chill, cool or freeze chicken for processing.

Georgia is a top chicken-producing state, and Gainesville has been called the poultry capital of the world because of its many plants.

The industry nationwide is known for paying workers low wages in freezing-cold plants, where they often stand shoulder to shoulder processing birds at a rapid clip, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents some poultry workers.

The work is hazardous, and poultry-processing employees may be exposed to high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors and hazardous chemicals, including ammonia that is used as a refrigerant, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workers may also be exposed to poultry feces and dusts that can increase their risk for disease.

Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia said in a statement that “our hearts are broken after hearing about the tragedy that took place at Prime Pak Foods in Gainesville this morning.”

He said he and his family had asked all Georgians “to join us in praying for the families facing a terrible loss and the other employees who are receiving medical care.”

Get Boston.com’s browser alerts:

Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.

Turn on notifications

Great, you’re signed up!