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Carroll Co. produce company closed Wednesday after 52 workers sickened

By Orlando Salinas, osalinas@wdbj7.com
Published On: Apr 01 2014 01:59:40 PM EDT
Updated On: Apr 02 2014 12:32:43 PM EDT

More than 50 Virginia Produce employees sent to hospital

HILLSVILLE, Va. -

Air quality tests at a produce plant in Carroll County have come back clean Wednesday morning.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture met with the owners Wednesday morning and cleared the produce that was inside of the plant as safe for shipment.

Carroll County Fire and Rescue have monitors on scene checking air quality throughout the day Wednesday.

A total of 52 employees were treated Tuesday after becoming sick while working at Virginia Produce on Tuesday. Three of them were airlifted to Duke University Hospital.

Three patients were admitted to Twin County Regional Hospital in Galax and are in good condition. Twin County Regional Hospital treated a total of 44 patients on Tuesday in its emergency department, according to a spokesperson.

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Air quality tests have come back clean for the Carroll County warehouse where more than 50 workers became sick Tuesday, according to Sheriff J. B. Gardner

Fifty-two workers were rushed from Virginia Produce to Twin County Regional Hospital in Galax. Three have been admitted, the rest were sent home. Three others were flown to Duke Medical Center in North Carolina, all in serious condition.

Family and friends rushed into Twin County Regional Hospital in Galax looking for answers after 52 workers at Virginia Produce became violently sick.
Miguel Soto was walking quickly to the main entrance of the hospital. When asked if he knew what had happened, Soto answered in Spanish, "I don't know anything right now. I've just found out that something happened. I'm going to find out. I'm looking for my wife Lidia."

Virginia Produce is one of Southwest Virginia's leading produce suppliers. The owner, Moir Beamer, said he believed the problem began in the packing area of the warehouse.

Police say, based on what they saw, most of the victims were women who may have been overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning. All the victims are Hispanic and most spoke very little English.

But this reporter speaks Spanish and asked Dani Estrada, who was walking into the hospital, what happened inside the produce warehouse on Industrial Drive.

"Well we were working and it was around 9 a.m. We started feeling bad. We had headaches. We were feeling sick. We told the boss and he gave us some pills for our headaches," Estrada said.

The first 9-1-1 call came in after 1 p.m., nearly four hours after Estrada said workers began feeling sick and throwing up. Some were laying on the produce floor next to the tomatoes they'd been packing.

Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner said when first responders arrived, they saw as many as 50 workers on the ground outside. Gardner said one of his deputies jumped into an ambulance.

"He drove the ambulance with two folks working in the back with two patients in the back. I put four people in his car and off we went to Galax, and then there were just a series of rescue squads showing up."

Dani Estrada said she's been working at Virginia Produce for three months. By lunchtime Tuesday, Estrada said the situation became really bad.

"By noon, people began fainting and I felt better so I began going around trying to help the others that had fainted on the floor," Estrada said.

Law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation say a new air conditioning system was being installed or recharged and it's possible someone may have put in the wrong type of coolant into the system.

Virginia Produce will be closed Wednesday as investigators search for clues as to why 52 workers became sick.

Investigators with Virginia Department of Labor and Industry are still trying to determine what caused the incident. They were on the scene at Virginia Produce for most of the afternoon. Tests on the air quality in the plant came back clean. Mechanical systems at the plant are back up as of 8 p.m.