A liquid nitrogen leak at a Georgia food packing plant killed at least six people Thursday and left three others hospitalized in critical condition, officials said.
Authorities responded to a report of burns at 10:12 a.m. at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, and within 10 minutes they had updated it to a hazardous materials response, Hall County Fire Service spokesman Zachary Brackett said.
Many evacuated employees and several other people were "experiencing medical emergencies around the facility," Brackett told reporters.
The victims' names, ages and genders were not immediately disclosed.
"Preliminary indications are that a nitrogen line ruptured inside the facility," Foundation Food Group Vice President Nicholas Ancrum said.
"Those lost today include maintenance, supervisory and management team members," he said. "Every team member is equally important to us and our hearts go out to their families."
Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said he was moved thinking about those who were killed after having clocked in Thursday morning with no expectation of their fate.
"A lot of these folks that came into work did not have any idea of what would happen, nor did their families," Couch said. "They're not in a profession that you would expect something like this to happen. But here we are. So that's why I ask you for all your prayers."
Five people died at the facility, and another person died at the hospital, officials said.
In total, 12 people were initially hospitalized. One person died, three people were treated and released, three people were in critical condition and five others were in fair condition, Northeast Georgia Health System spokesman Sean Couch said.
One of those hospitalized is a firefighter who is expected to be OK and should be released Friday, Brackett said.
"Don't know much about the extent of the injuries beyond the conditions," Sean Couch said, "but can say they're all respiratory in nature."
The cause of the leak, which was not immediately known, was under investigation by the Hall County Sheriff's Office, the state fire marshal and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Brackett said.
Brackett also corrected early reports of a blast, saying, "No explosion has occurred."
A school bus took 130 employees to a church for medical evaluation, officials said.
Early reports about the accident had identified the plant as Prime-Pak Foods. But the facility, which processes chicken products, changed hands to Foundation Food Group on Jan. 1, officials said.
"Our hearts are broken hearing about the tragedy that took place at Prime Pak Foods," Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement. "May God be a hand of peace, comfort and healing in the days ahead."