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One dead, four injured in ammonia leak at Robeson poultry plant

Posted June 20, 2009
Updated June 21, 2009

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— An ammonia leak at a poultry processing plant in Lumber Bridge killed one man and sent four others to hospitals Saturday morning, Robeson County Manager Kenneth Windley said. Investigators ruled it an accident.

Dorothy Conaway, the victim's sister One dead in ammonia leak at Robeson plant

Employees appeared to be conducting maintenance on a piece of machinery at Mountaire Farms Inc. processing plant, 17269 N.C. Highway 71, just before 10 a.m. when a high-pressure line ruptured, rapidly releasing anhydrous ammonia gas, said Sheriff Kenneth Sealey.

The gas causes burning and swelling of the air passages in the nose, throat and lungs.

About 25 to 30 workers were evacuated from the plant. Fayetteville's 10-person hazardous-materials team responded, along with EMS, local fire departments and Robeson County sheriff's deputies. N.C. 71 was closed until 3:30 p.m.

Authorities identified the worker who died as Clifton Swain, 49, of Greenmeadow Road in Fayetteville.

Sealey did not identify the four injured workers. Two were taken to Cape Fear Valley and later transported to North Carolina Jaycees Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Two were taken to Southeastern Regional Medical Center. One of those workers was treated and released.

Swain was a mechanic and did maintenance at the plant. He had worked there 11 years, family members said.

"I guess right now I really can't believe that he's gone, and that's the hardest part," said his sister Dorothy Conaway. "Right now, I'm just holding on to the memories."

Swain was also a retired master sergeant with 24 years in the Air Force. He had trained at Pope Air Force Base, according to family members. He leaves behind a wife, a son and four stepchildren.

Company history; safety violations

Investigators combed the plant for evidence of the leak's precise cause. The State Bureau of Investigation, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration were assisting.

Mountaire Farms, which employs about 2,500 people at the plant, pledged to make all its resources available to investigators.

"We wish to express our sincere concern and condolences for the victims and their families of this tragedy," read a statement from Mountaire Farms. "We are deeply grateful for the work of the emergency and public safety officials during this crisis."

An OSHA inspection report dated April 21 cites the plant for 15 violations, including nine labeled as serious. Fines totaled $19,600.

The violations cited standards for controlling hazardous energy and guarding floor and wall openings. Those areas could have something to do with ventilation. Other violations involved noise and sanitation standards.

The inspection report is still listed as open.

Between 2005 and 2008, Mountaire had four other OSHA violations.

Mountaire Farms bought the plant from Piedmont Poultry in 1996 and doubled production there in three years, according to the company Web site.


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