Investigators target cryogenic freezing system in leak that killed 6 at Hall County chicken plant

Investigators are focusing on a cryogenic freezing system as they continue to look into a chemical leak that killed six people at a Hall County chicken processing plant.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released an update Sunday on the incident that occurred less than two weeks ago at Foundation Food’s chicken processing facility in Gainesville.

The CSB said the leak happened along Line 4 inside the plant where chicken is processed, seasoned, cooked, frozen and then packaged.

“CSB has now confirmed that both the external and the interior elements of this system were manufactured by Messer. This includes the supply tanks outside, and the interior cryogenic freezing equipment on Line 4,” the CSB said in the update. “Prior to the recent installation of this system, a different type of freezing equipment was used, which was ammonia-based. This equipment is still collocated on Line 4 adjacent to the cryogenic system and has not yet been removed.”

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The CSB said their investigation so far has determined there was unplanned maintenance that happened along the line on the cryogenic freezing system.

“The system installed is a LN immersion-spiral freezer. This process occurs in two stages. In the first stage, the chicken travels on a conveyer belt and is submerged in LN at a temperature of -320F. In the second stage, the conveyer belt travels through the spiral freezer portion, and the chicken is exposed to recovered gaseous N (from stage 1), to complete the freezing process,” the CSB said.

Hall County investigators said five of the victims died inside the plant. Another person died after being rushed to the hospital.

They have been identified as:

  • Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45, of Gainesville
  • Corey Alan Murphy, 35, of Clermont
  • Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28, of Gainesville (female)
  • Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41, of Dawsonville
  • Victor Vellez, 38, of Gainesville
  • Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28, of Gainesville

The CSB said two more victims were released from the hospital on Saturday. Only one person remains hospitalized and is listed in fair condition.

Records and our reporting show that this was not the first problem at the plant. In 2019, we reported on a $10,000 fine levied by the state environmental protection division against then-owners Prime Pak for not having filed an emergency plan dealing with ammonia.

Investigators say it could be weeks before they reach any conclusion on the cause of the ruptured line.