In calls to 911 from Foundation Food Group in Gainesville, reports were that people had been sprayed or exposed to liquid nitrogen and were frozen, Hall County Emergency Management Agency Director Casey Ramsey said Jan. 30.
Several agencies continue investigating the incident, which occurred just after 10 a.m. on Thursday.
At a 3 p.m. news conference on Saturday, Katherine Lemos, chair and CEO of U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said a maintenance manager shut off an external isolation valve supplying liquid nitrogen to the processing lines shortly after the leak began. She said that action likely prevented further damage.
There were few new details at the news conference about what led to the leak, but Lemos did say "major portions of the liquid nitrogen system, both interior and exterior" were installed in the last four to six weeks. She said tools were also reported found around the new equipment, a discovery she says the board is looking into.
She said the incident occurred on the fourth of five production lines at the plant, and the other four lines are still in operation. Processing on line four included poultry seasoning, cooking and flash freezing, she said. Lemos said liquid nitrogen is used to flash freeze the chicken.
Lemos said an "inadvertent release" of liquid nitrogen rapidly converted to a gas.
"The gas is heavier than air and forces oxygen out of the room," she said.
The board will be looking for more information on the insulation, age, operation, maintenance and condition of all liquid nitrogen system equipment, Lemos said.
The chemical safety investigators will continue their investigations on the scene in coming days and release any urgent updates as they have them, Lemos said. But, she added, it could take years to complete a full investigation report.
Lemos did, however, reiterate early in her remarks that there had been no explosion at Foundation Food Group, a rumor that quickly circulated on social media shortly after the leak was discovered.
If "major" information is available as investigators continue their work Saturday evening, another announcement of findings could come in the days ahead, Lemos said.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office, which is conducting death investigations, released the names of those killed on Friday, Jan. 30. Their bodies were transported to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for an autopsy. Hall County Deputy Coroner Kevin Wetzel said the autopsies were scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 31.
Two remained in critical condition and one in fair condition at the hospital Friday, Jan. 30, Northeast Georgia Health System spokesman Sean Couch said. Their identities have not been released by authorities.
Fundraising and other efforts to help the families have been organized by friends, family and community leaders.
Digital Editor Thomas Hartwell contributed to this report.
See the original Gainesville Times story here.