Fifty people treated after Va. Produce incident

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In what was first thought to be a gas leak, workers at Virginia Produce reported difficulty breathing. Now, emergency officials say the cause is unknown.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Despite Virginia Department of Emergency Management and hazardous materials team members monitoring the air in Virginia Produce on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, emergency officials say they still do not know a cause for the incident that sickened more than 50 workers there.
While early reports called the incident at the Carroll County Industrial Park facility possible carbon monoxide poisoning, that has not been confirmed.


The air seems back to normal, Mike Mock, Carroll emergency services director, told The Gazette on Wednesday morning.
Virginia Produce officials released a statement noting that multiple employees began having difficulty breathing and headaches at about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Company officials immediately evacuated all employees and called the emergency services.
Helicopters flew three workers to Duke Medical Center in Durham, N.C. They were listed in stable condition Wednesday.
All other patients were treated and released Tuesday.
“Most employees did not exhibit any signs of trauma, but as a precautionary measure the remainder of the employees were sent to local hospitals,” the company’s news release said. “Our primary concern at this moment is ensuring the health and safety of our employees.”
Virginia Produce officials were cooperating with state and local emergency agencies to find the source of the incident, the news release said.
Carroll Fire Rescue responded to the scene first on Tuesday to deal with a fainting report. Faced with multiple patients after arriving, rescue personnel asked for other agencies to help with loading four to 15 transports.
The Hillsville Fire Department responded to ventilate the building. Mock said agencies assisting with transport included Laurel, Laurel Fork, Pipers Gap, Dugspur, Galax-Grayson, Wythe County, Lead Mines and Surry County, N.C.
Several deputies also assisted in taking workers to hospitals. Twin County Regional Hospital, Wythe County Community Hospital and Northern Hospital of Surry in Mount Airy, N.C., provided the medical care.
Sheriff J.B. Gardner responded with Chief Deputy Gary Bourne to assist at the scene.
The chief deputy ended up driving an ambulance to the hospital in Galax, Gardner said. “Gary had two in the ambulance, and I had four in the car.”
Buses provided by the Southwestern Virginia Training Center and Mount Rogers Mental Health also arrived on scene to help, Mock said. Members of Laurel Fork and Dugspur rode on the buses with non-critical patients to Northern Surry to be checked out.
The source of the incident remains a mystery, according to a news release from Gardner on Tuesday evening.
“Investigators from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry have been on the scene at Virginia Produce for most of the afternoon,” the sheriff wrote. “Tests were run on the air quality in the plant and came back clean.”
Labor department officials and Carroll Fire Rescue personnel remained on the scene until 6 a.m. Wednesday.
Any assignment of a cause would be “pure speculation” at this point, the emergency service director said.
The state officials returned Wednesday to follow up.
“Tests conducted during the night did not reveal a cause nor an origin of what made the workers sick,” according to a news release Wednesday. “Carroll County Fire and Rescue will have monitors on scene as well throughout the day checking the air quality.”
Company officials are taking precautions in light of this situation, Mock added.
“They’ll take some steps to try and avoid this problem in the future,” he said, deferring on the specifics to representatives of Virginia Produce.
Mock added that owner Moir Beamer requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials respond to check out the produce in the plant and make sure that it was not affected by the incident.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture met with the owners this morning and cleared the produce that was inside the plant as safe for shipment,” according to emergency officials on Wednesday.
“I thought that was very proactive on his part,” Mock said.
The incident pulled together a number of fire, police, medical and rescue agencies in the Twin Counties, and Galax Police Chief Rick Clark on Wednesday issued a statement praising their cooperation.
“The staff at Twin County Hospital responded in an impressive manner. They were competent and confident in what they were doing.”
When Carroll EMS workers saw their capacity was overwhelmed, they called in help from rescue squads. “It speaks highly of the number of volunteer EMS agencies who responded. We should be thankful for both the high level of professionalism from our area’s paid EMS providers and the number of people who are willing to give their time to help those in need.
“It makes me appreciative of the place I live and the people who live here.”
Many of the workers spoke Spanish and little English, so Clark also thanked those who helped translate for medical staff and victims’ families, including Pastor Ricky Alvarado from Galax First Baptist Church, Galax police officer Silverio Gonzales and Lulu Lopez.