Cause of Va. Produce hospitalizations remains a mystery

By Allen Worrell

April 2, 2014

The source of a sickness that hospitalized approximately 50 Virginia Produce workers Tuesday in Hillsville remains a mystery as of Wednesday morning.

“Investigators from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry were on the scene at Virginia Produce for most of Tuesday afternoon. Tests were run on the air quality in the plant and came back clean. Mechanical systems inside the plant were back up and operational as of 8 p.m., and no apparent cause was discovered,” Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner said.

Personnel continued to monitor air quality throughout the night and investigators were back on the scene Wednesday morning in an attempt to discover what sent more than 50 people to emergency rooms throughout the area.

“At this time, source and cause is still a mystery,” Gardner said Wednesday morning. “The Department of Agriculture has released them to distribute the produce. Tests conducted during the night did not reveal a cause nor an origin of what made the workers sick. Readings this morning and all through the night were all clear. 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. Carroll County Fire and Rescue will have monitors on scene as well throughout the day checking the air quality.”

Approximately 50 people were transported to area hospitals from Virginia Produce in the Carroll County Industrial Park in Hillsville on Tuesday for what was first believed to be carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carroll County Emergency Services Coordinator Mike Mock said the initial call came in at 12:41 p.m.

“And when we arrived on scene what we found was a number of people that were sick,” Mock said. “We’re not sure yet what the cause was for sure. It could be several different things that caused it. But we did transport somewhere around 50 people from the scene to different hospitals.”

Mock said the majority of patients were transported to Twin County Regional Hospital in Galax, while others were sent to Northern Hospital of Surry County, N.C. as well as Wytheville.

“I do know there were four patients flown by helicopter, to Duke, from what I understand,” Mock said. “I do not know the status of the patients yet.”

Rescue units from all Carroll County departments responded to the scene with the exception of Cana, Mock said, in addition to units from Wythe, Grayson and Surry counties, and the City of Galax.

After the dispatch came in at 12:41 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, Twin County Regional Hospital was initially advised to expect between 4 and 15 Hispanic, non-English speaking patients. Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner responded to the scene.

“There were between 25-30 people laying out when we got there. (Chief Deputy) Gary Bourne and I started loading patients left and right and we took off to the hospital,” Gardner said. “There was some kind of gas leak is my understanding.”

Responding units found several people outside of the building complaining of headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing.

Gardner said at the time that at least three patients were being airlifted by helicopter “in pretty serious condition.”