A liquid nitrogen leak last week at a poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Ga., killed six people and injured a dozen others. The tragedy brought into focus an industry that's lightly regulated and heavily staffed by undocumented workers.  On Georgia Today, Richard Fausset of The New York Times talks about the tragedy in the self-professed “Poultry Capital of the World.”

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Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Feb. 5th, 2021. At a poultry plant in Hall County, it was a scene of horror.

911 Caller: I'm the director of the plant here. I see a lot of people moving outside. I got a phone call from one of our employees saying that I've got a person who could potentially be frozen from liquid nitrogen. We run nitrogen freezers here.

Steve Fennessy: A liquid nitrogen leak on Jan. 28th at the Foundation Food Group in Gainesville killed six people and injured a dozen others. The tragedy brought into focus an industry that is lightly regulated and heavily staffed by undocumented workers. I'm talking about the incident with New York Times Atlanta bureau chief Richard Fausset. To fully understand this tragedy, he says it's necessary to understand the history of Gainesville, the self-professed poultry capital of the world.

Richard Fausset: It's an extremely important industry, and in a place like Gainesville, there's a lot of pride in being a community that — that feeds the world.

So Gainesville, Ga., has for many decades been known as the poultry capital of the world. That's what it calls itself. This has a lot to do with a guy named Jesse Jewel, who was a Georgia Tech graduate, who sort of, before World War II, began tinkering with this idea of the vertical integration of the — of the chicken industry. This meant having one company that controlled every process of raising — of raising chickens.

There is a wonderful small park right in downtown Gainesville called Poultry Park. And it has this 20-foot pedestal with a — with a small it looks like a sort of brass fried chicken on top of it and a number of plaques that really celebrate the — the way that Gainesville was central to the modernization of the chicken industry. And it talks about people like Mr. Jewell as the kind of Henry Fords of the chicken industry. And it was — it remains an extremely important poultry processing hub for Georgia's chicken industry, which is the biggest chicken industry of any state in the country. Georgia produces 30 million pounds of chicken every day.

Steve Fennessy: Every day. And most of that comes through Gainesville?

Richard Fausset: Well, a lot of it — a lot of that happens around Gainesville.

The first time that I was involved in any kind of journalistic endeavor around there was in 1998, I was working as the editor of Flagpole, the alternative weekly in Athens. And a photojournalist named Kathleen Cole came to me and said she wanted to document a Klan rally and a cross burning. And it turns out the rally was in Gainesville.

One of their big concerns was the arrival of undocumented immigrants, most of them from Mexico and Central America.

Steve Fennessy: Looking for work specifically within the chicken industry?

Richard Fausset: That was really the big draw. And this is really what kind of fuels what feels like this kind of unresolved tension in Gainesville. And I would argue in the entire agricultural sector and in the state, many of the people who are doing the work in the chicken plants in and around Georgia are Latino and many of them are undocumented. According to Pew, something like 12% of the residents of Gainesville are undocumented immigrants, which is one of the largest proportions of undocumented immigrants of any city in the country.

The longest amount of time I've ever spent in Gainesville was back in 2011. I spent about a week there writing a story for the L.A. Times, and I ended up writing a story about the taxicabs of Gainesville. This is a city that the time had fewer than 40,000 residents. Right now, I think it has like 43,000. And there were 177 licensed taxis in 2011, which is just an insane amount of taxis for a city of fewer than 40,000.

Steve Fennessy: So what's the connection?

Richard Fausset: So the connection is that in around 2008, the local sheriff entered into a federal program, a very controversial program called 287(g).

Newscast: Local law enforcement agencies joining a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigration has doubled since President Trump took office. Counties that are signed up for the 287(g) program work with federal customs officials in reporting undocumented immigrants.

Richard Fausset: When the Hall County sheriff at the time introduced this program, he went around to churches and community groups and he told the Latino community — which at that point was quite large; it was approaching 40%, if not beyond 40% of the population — that if they didn't want to be deported, they shouldn't break the law. And a lot of that means, in the day-to-day in a, you know, a car-centric culture, staying off the road, not driving without a license. And this is what necessitated the rise of these really Latino-focused taxi services. And when I went back up last Thursday to — to cover the nitrogen leak and the deaths there, the first thing I noticed was that the taxis are there. Feels like there are more of them than ever. The problem hasn't been solved.

Steve Fennessy: So the program that was implemented by the sheriff a dozen or so years ago, is that still an ongoing thing?

Richard Fausset: It's an ongoing thing. People are still being deported every year; scores of them. And it continues to be something that — that stokes a lot of fear in the people who are living and working there who — who aren't documented.

Newscast: The question: Would or should federal ICE agents take a swing at Georgia's massive global poultry industry? And Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, says most of those workers are undocumented immigrants.

Jerry Gonzalez: It is our No. 1 industry in this state. Without the immigrant workers, that industry would collapse.

Steve Fennessy: Is there a way to sort of quantify the degree to which these companies rely on undocumented workers?

Richard Fausset: A very large number of the people working in the chicken processing plants in and around Gainesville are Latino, and a large number of them are presumed to be undocumented workers. You know, it's interesting — so there's a, there's a long history here that has to do with the chicken industry and worker safety nationwide. It's been very difficult for unions to secure a foothold in poultry plants, particularly in Georgia. So it's another example of how you come to this moment last Thursday, this tragic moment where you have people who are living in the shadows, people who are afraid to drive, people who have been suffering under COVID conditions and in some cases are afraid to go to the hospital or afraid to get checked out because they're afraid that they'll expose themselves to the authorities. And you have people who, of course, are also not unionized. And so having a discussion about workplace safety as a worker becomes — it's just — it's just much more complicated.

Newscast: Now to Georgia, where an investigation is underway into a deadly liquid nitrogen leak at a poultry plant. Six people died there and a dozen more were hurt, three of them critically.

Steve Fennessy: So the accident that occurred last Thursday. Set that up for us. It's at a place called the Foundation Food Group, which is — which is what, exactly?

Richard Fausset: So the Foundation Food Group is a locally owned Gainesville company. They have about 1,500 employees. They recently merged with a couple of other companies. One of them is called Prime Pak Inc. In fact, this particular chicken plant had been operating as a Prime Pak company until very recently. And what Foundation Food Group does is it makes what it calls value-added poultry products, meaning premarinated chicken breasts, breaded chicken fingers, chicken nuggets, that sort of thing.

So on Thursday, the 28th, it was maybe 10 after 10 a.m. in the morning when a line carrying liquid nitrogen in the plant ruptured. It ruptured on one of five production lines where they do seasoning and cooking of the meat and flash freezing of the meat using this this liquid nitrogen.

911 Dispatcher: Hall County 911. What’s the address of your emergency?

Richard Fausset: Here's a recording of the 911 call that came from the plant the morning of the accident.

911 Caller: 911. I've got multiple people affected by liquid nitrogen.

911 Dispatcher: Yes, sir. We've got additional units coming to you. Are the responders with you?

911 Caller: What can I do with someone who's been affected?

911 Dispatcher: OK, there should be responders there. Can you direct them to where you are?

911 Caller: I do not see any responders here.

911 Dispatcher: We have people there. Where are you?

Richard Fausset: Just absolutely frightening. And it's just from the 911 calls and from the reporting we've done, that just sounds like a scene of utter chaos.

911 Dispatcher: OK, tell me exactly what you see or hear him doing.

911 Caller:  He's foaming at the mouth. Eyes are open. Struggling. I see some firemen inside. He's breathing very slowly. He's breathing very slowly.

911 Dispatcher: OK, we've got you help coming. They'll be there as soon as they can. Just stay on the phone with me.

911 Caller: All right.

Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, the chaotic moments after the leak and how the community of Gainesville has reacted to the tragedy. This is Georgia Today.


Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, I'm joined this week by Richard Fausset, Atlanta bureau chief for The New York Times. Richard is describing the moments after the liquid nitrogen leak at a Gainesville poultry plant. It was an accident that killed six people last week. Richard, what makes a liquid nitrogen leak so dangerous?

Richard Fausset: The liquid nitrogen becomes a gas when it leaks and it sucks all the oxygen out of the room. You had people running out of the plant. Some of them, according to eyewitnesses, ran out into the grass and fell down in the grass — they’re gasping for air. Jackie Reece, who works across from the poultry plant, told 11 Alive News what he saw.

Jackie Reece: All of a sudden, I’m just seeing people running out of the building like, chaos, and two people fell out on the grass, just collapsed and the first responders started helping them. And I started praying, you know, it was just scary. You know, this world can’t take much more chaos.

Steve Fennessy: One of the people who came into work that day was Brenda Aguillar's uncle. After news broke about the leak at the plant, she frantically tried to reach him. Here she is talking to CBS 46.

Brenda Aguillar: He doesn't answer his phone and we don't know where he's at. And we’re just praying he's OK and he's just one of the ones who’s injured and they just haven't gotten his information to let us know he's OK. But we also know that that could not be the case. It’s just stressful to not know.

Steve Fennessy: CBS 46 later reported that Aguillar's uncle was one of the six people killed at the poultry plant.

Richard Fausset: In the end, six people died; five of them in the plant, one of them at the hospital. A number of other people were treated for injuries. And of those six, five of them were Latino. Two of them were Mexican citizens. There was a husband and wife who — who died, who left a 3-year-old child orphaned. After that, the plant was evacuated. School buses gathered up all of the survivors and — who didn't need to be hospitalized — and took them to a nearby megachurch. And we were told that a number of the people who were brought to this kind of way station refused to be checked out by medical personnel there because they were afraid that they'd be giving up their personal information and their identities and that somehow they would — this would lead to them being exposed and to being potentially deported.

Steve Fennessy: Which sounds like rational fear to have, given the history of the place.

Richard Fausset: Well, it is. And it's also, you know, it was just kind of more dramatic iteration of the concern that's just been so prevalent in Gainesville in the last year with the COVID crisis, where community organizers have told us that it's just been a real problem. People have the sniffles, people have a sore throat, people think they're sick, and most people don't have health insurance. Moreover, they don't want to get checked out. They don't want to go to the hospital because they're afraid that somehow they're going to be — they're going to be found out.

Newscast: And tonight, CBS 46 News confirmed that employees voiced safety concerns a day before the tragedy.

Steve Fennessy: And Richard, Katherine Lemos is the CEO and chair of the Chemical Safety Board, which I understand is a federal non-regulatory agency. That's just one of the groups investigating the leak. She says the nitrogen system at the plant had been installed just weeks before the incident.

Katherine Lemos: So installed doesn't mean it was commissioned and operational. We — and I'll tell you, we're still looking to determine when it was, quote unquote “turned on,” whether the equipment was brand new, whether it was refurbished. All those questions yet still to be answered.

Richard Fausset: We also found out that more disaster was averted, in part because someone was able to turn a valve and shut the flow of nitrogen off.

Steve Fennessy: The company's response. What was that?

Richard Fausset: So Foundation Food Group has — has not commented on the cause of the leak. Spokesman Nicholas Ancrum read a statement.

Nicholas Ancrum: Foundation Food Group takes workplace safety very seriously and works constantly to adopt and implement the most effective safety programs available to the industry until this investigation is completed. We cannot say with confidence precisely how this accident occurred and therefore we will be unable to answer questions until we know more.

Steve Fennessy: In terms of the accident, what is the status of the investigation and is there any estimates on how long it might take?

Richard Fausset: I don't have a sense of the timeline, but we know that there are multiple agencies involved. This is including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on the federal side and the U.S. Chemical and Safety Investigation Board. This particular plant had a rather long history with OSHA. It had been the subject of numerous fines we found going back to at least 2015. A few years ago, there were a couple of workers who had fingers that were cut off when they got them caught in — in machinery. And this is not uncommon in the poultry industry. It's a — it's a — it's a really dangerous job. I mean, it can be a really repetitive job, a rather unpleasant job. And the safety issues are legion around — around the country that the current crisis has only amplified and magnified these problems.

Newscast: The coronavirus is hitting hard at America's meat and poultry processing plants. Thousands of workers are getting sick. Plants are being forced to close for sanitizing and safety.

Richard Fausset: Meat packing and poultry industries are deemed essential industries by the federal government. Somebody has to go in and do this and this work. And a lot of cases, people are working very close together and in close spaces. We know that more than 200 meat industry workers have died of COVID, at the very least, in the last year. So, again, when you think about what happened on that Thursday morning, these are people who, on the one hand, are being rejected by their neighbors and by this country. And on the other hand, they're feeding this country and they're feeding their neighbors. And — but the act of doing so is an incredibly dangerous one.

Steve Fennessy:You speak Spanish, but, yeah, you're — you're an American journalist. So how open are the folks that you spoke to?

Richard Fausset: Well, there was there was really a range. You know, there are people who were in the process of, of mourning who obviously didn't want to talk on the record, but there were people in the immediate surroundings who were who were just incredibly shaken. You know, people who were a lot more scared to go back to work both in this plant and in other plants. But they know they have no choice but to go back to work. I mean, they can do that or they can go home.

And I mean, if you look at the situation, say if you come from Mexico, you know, not only is there a safety problem because of the drug war, but there's also a rampant and deadly COVID problem there as well. So, you know, you just get this sense that the people were scared, but they're — they're also stuck in a way. There's a phrase when I was living in Mexico that I heard bandied about called “La Jaula de Oro,” the Golden Cage, to describe the people who had moved to the United States to work to make more money. I mean, I think it's worth noting that a lot of people move to a place like Gainesville because — Gainesville, because it's — it's — it offers them a lot better opportunity than whatever was being offered in their pueblo or the other city in Mexico. The wages are often pretty good compared to what they get at home. And in fact, some of the workplace standards are arguably better.

But because of the nature of our immigration policy right now, it means that once you come up here, it's very hard to go back. It used to be a lot easier to go back and to visit family. And so you're sort of stuck in this golden cage. If you're working in the poultry industry, you're afraid of this accident and what it really means for workplace safety. And then but you have to go back to work. You have no other choice.

I remember listening to the radio and hearing a local Gainesville English-language radio station with they had kind of a news talk program on and everyone was offering their prayers for the families.

And it really raised this big question about the Gainesville community and the ways in which they attempted to be cohesive in the midst of tremendous demographic — tremendous demographic change and a huge debate over the right way to carry out immigration policy. Hall County is a very pro-Trump County, but you have a community that's been absolutely transformed by Latino culture.

The Atlanta Highway up there is just this amazing stretch of taquerias and restaurants and Latin grocery stores, and even though there's been a lot of really obvious pushback, there's also been some really lovely moments where you can see the community trying to figure out what it's going to be, now that it's this new kind of mix of people. There's a Latino festival — at least it was — every year downtown. For a number of years, the school system has worked really hard to integrate a lot of non-English-speaking children into its system. And there are now, of course, a lot of people who are born in Gainesville to undocumented immigrant parents who are starting to redefine the place and make it their own. But you still really feel like it's a city.

And I would argue, you know, this is something that extends to the state of Georgia in the country that hasn't really figured out how to come to grips with the fact that the people who produce our food and get our food on the table very often are not allowed to be here.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to New York Times Atlanta bureau chief Richard Fausset. The investigation into the liquid nitrogen leak continues. And Katherine Lemos of the Chemical Safety Board says it could be several years before we have a full picture of just what occurred.

Katherine Lemos: But I do know that if there's any immediate or urgent safety finding or a recommendation that we would want to make to the community, whether local or nationwide, if we discover this is nationwide, we will issue that on an emergent basis. You will not need to wait to the end of the investigation.

Steve Fennessy: The Chemical Safety Board isn't the only agency investigating. OSHA is; state fire marshal unit, and the Hall County Sheriff's Office as well. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Our producer, Sean Powers. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.

Transcript by Khari J. Sampson