Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Jose DeJesus Elias Cabrera, Nelly Perez-Rafael and Edgar Vera-Garcia were three of the six victims who lost their lives after a liquid nitrogen leak at the Foundation Food Group poultry plant in Gainesville. All three were laid to rest over three consecutive days, Feb. 3-5, at St. John Paul II Mission.


Gainesville Catholic community mourns nitrogen leak victims

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 17, 2021  | En Español

GAINESVILLE—Families and friends paid their final respects to workers killed at a poultry plant at funeral Masses.

Three of the six victims of the fatal chemical leak on Jan. 28 at the Foundation Food Group poultry plant were members of St. John Paul II Mission. A fourth worshiped at Prince of Peace Church, Flowery Branch.

People grieved at the parish and mission in this North Georgia city for the loss of lives. Impromptu shrines with candles with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe were erected. Ministries of charity prepared to aid families. Many of the victims of the industrial accident had young children.

A scheduled holy hour of prayer at St. Michael Church the day after the deaths drew hundreds of mourners. Several of the victims had been part of the 1,000-family parish for years before joining the mission’s faith community, about five miles away.

Gainesville’s Foundation Food Group was the site of a fatal liquid nitrogen leak that killed six employees Jan. 28. Photo By Michael Alexander

The prayer service on Friday, Jan. 29, included a golden monstrance with the Eucharist placed on the altar. A seminarian learning about parish life planned the service. The evening of reflection and music was intended to remember COVID-19 victims. However, the names of the plant workers were added and attached to the cross set at the foot of the altar.

Mourners left online remembrances of the deceased. A friend wrote about Edgar Uriel Vera-Garcia, “Your smile and laughter will live on in your children, and we will remember you for the thoughtful, funny, caring soul you were.”

Nelly Gisel Perez Rafael was said to have “the most pleasant, sweetest smile, and personality a young lady could have. You will be missed by many and you will be in our hearts forever.”

To Jose DeJesus Elias Cabrera, the oldest victim at 46, a friend shared “to his family I send a strong hug and pray God accompanies his soul on his new journey.”

Kindness in the Christian tradition

Weekend Masses again drew people together. Masked worshippers asked questions and offered to help.

Worshippers heard a message of consolation from Atlanta Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv.—“Please know you are in our prayers. We are so sorry for your losses. We wish you the peace of Christ as you go through the days ahead. We know the work you do is difficult and often unrecognized. You are not forgotten, you have a special place in the heart of your archbishop and we appreciate your deep faith and hard work.”

Deacon Ken Lampert, the parish business manager at St. Michael Church, spoke through his tears. He said many people offered to help the families.

“That’s overwhelming me,” he said “… kindness in the true Christian tradition that ‘you are my brother and sister.’”

Deacon Lampert said the early days were confusing and fearful. People called the parish in tears and anxious about the tragedy, rumors flew as people shared the wrong names of victims, he said.

Loved ones are struggling with these unexpected deaths because the victims were young, said Deacon Lampert. The many poultry factories draw people to the city but it is hard work in tough conditions, he said. Gainesville has been dubbed the Poultry Capital of the World.

“There are no old folks working over there. Everyone is in their 20s to 40s. It is a dangerous occupation. Nobody expected this,” he said.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is examining what caused the fatal chain of events. Experts are looking at a leak from the plant’s liquid nitrogen system. The liquid nitrogen is used to flash freeze chickens.

The parish St. Vincent de Paul ministry has plans in place to distribute aid to families, the deacon said.

Jose DeJesus Elias Cabrera’s coffin is removed from the hearse, so it can be rolled into St. John Paul II Mission, Gainesville, for a Feb. 4 funeral Mass. Elias-Cabrera, 46, was one of six victims killed in an incident involving a liquid nitrogen leak at the city’s Foundation Food Group poultry plant. The funerals for three of the six people killed took place at St. John Paul II Mission the week of Jan. 31. Photo By Michael Alexander

The victims all came to Georgia from Mexico to better themselves. At least two will be buried in their native country.

The members of St. John Paul II Mission are:

Edgar Uriel Vera-Garcia, 28, was cared for by his grandmother when his mother died when he was young. He leaves behind his wife and three children.

Nelly Gisel Perez Rafael, 28, had a daughter. She had two brothers and a sister in Georgia, with her parents living in Mexico.

Jose DeJesus Elias Cabrera, 46, had sisters living in Mexico and many close friends and other family members nearby.

Attending Prince of Peace Church, Flowery Branch, is Victor Vellez, 38, who was raising two boys with his wife. He is survived also by his parents.

The other victims are Corey Alan Murphy, 35. A Kentucky native,  devoted father and U.S. Army veteran serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41, who leaves behind many family members.

Father Mark Starr, administrator of St. John Paul II, said the mission is starting a support group network for all families affected by the tragedy, including those who may have lost employment due to the accident.

“Although difficult times for the mission, we are a big family that tries to extend the hand of the Lord in all our ministries,” said the priest.