First responders arrived at Norton Creek Farms, just south of Franklin, Friday evening when they received a call that two workers were unresponsive inside a refrigerated storage building.
One of the workers, identified by authorities as Bobby Ammons, was later pronounced dead at Angel Medical Center in Franklin. The other worker was airlifted to a Greenville Memorial Hospital in South Carolina.
Shortly before 7 p.m., a woman had called 911 from Norton Creek Farms and said two men were unresponsive inside the facility, one on a running forklift and another on the ground. The men were loading a shipment of produce into a semitrailer that was docked at the building.
Two bystanders were the first to help by shutting off the forklift and pulling the men from the back of the semitrailer — where they were working — onto the floor of the cooler unit.
Law enforcement arrived on the scene minutes later and, assisted by a fireman from the local station, helped to pull the unresponsive men from the building.
Then, responders began performing CPR on the man who would later be identified as Ammons. The other man was still breathing at the time, though barely, according to County Emergency Services Director David Key.
Key could not say if Ammons was already dead when help arrived.
As a result of the rescue operation, though, three deputies, firemen, the good Samaritans who first arrived and other responders who worked to try and rescue the two victims were exposed to some sort of contaminant in the air and admitted to the local hospital. They exhibited various respiratory symptoms but were all released from the local hospital that evening, Key said.
Some suspect a type of noxious gas is to blame for the death and the hospitalizations and point to high carbon monoxide readings taken at the facility. The Macon County Sheriff’s Office reports that the semitrailer was docked at the facility and left running for approximately two hours. All the doors to the facility were closed while the men worked.
Matt Mason, assistant chief of the Clarks Chapel Fire and Rescue, was on the scene that day. He said carbon monoxide detectors registered more than 1,000 parts per million on site. He said readings as low as 35 parts per million is the threshold when the air becomes unsafe for humans.
“That’s when we determined we were having toxic readings,” Mason said.
It wasn’t until after exposure occurred that people remaining on the scene began using oxygen tanks and breathing apparatus.
Key said a gas like carbon monoxide, which is colorless and odorless, could have caught the two workers, and the safety personnel, unaware before they had time to react. There were also reports of hydrogen sulfide, a gas released by decaying vegetation that can deplete oxygen levels in a confined area, inside the building.
“Maybe it just overtook them before they knew it,” Key said, but added it was too soon to say for sure the cause of the event. “We still haven’t determined the source,” he said.
One bystander, Bob Scott, who arrived after hearing the commotion on the police radio, said he was surprised by the scope of the response and the number of responders. In all, eight law enforcement, medical and fire departments assisted in the operation.
“I just went down there because I knew something big was going on,” Scott said. “When I got there, it was pretty calm. The remaining people were replenishing the air packs, and everyone was already at the hospital.”
Norton Creek Farms grows, packages and distributes berries and is one of the largest agricultural endeavors in the county.
The cause of the incident is being investigation by Macon County law enforcement and officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the N.C. Department of Labor. State OSHA officials visited the facility on Saturday and again on Monday. Sheriff Robbie Holland said it could take months before OSHA issues a final report on the incident. He also commented on the hospitalizations in a press release.
“I am extremely proud and feel blessed of the actions of my officers, who along with the good Samaritans and rescue personnel, risked their lives to render aid to those in dire need,” he wrote.