BELLE GLADE, Fla. — At least nine people were taken to the hospital on Wednesday following a chemical incident at a produce facility in Belle Glade.
A spokesman for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue said crews responded to Pioneer Growers, located in the 200 block of Northwest Avenue L, just after 8 a.m. for "potential chemical and hazardous conditions."
"Workers came in and, shortly thereafter, saw a large white fog coming from the back side of this plant," Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Capt. Tom Reyes said. "It was in the air and the wind was taking it to the south and to the west."
Fire rescue crews immediately evacuated the plant, and nearby Belle Glade Elementary School and Lake Shore Middle School were placed on a precautionary lockdown.
Reyes said the chemical involved was chlorine dioxide, which is used in the chilling system for vegetables that are stored at the facility.
"Chlorine dioxide by itself is not an especially toxic or dangerous material," Reyes said, adding that it can, however, irritate your respiratory system.
By 8:22 a.m., fire rescue crews had stopped the leak and the white fog had started dissipating.
Reyes said crews set up a triage center to evaluate workers, launching a "mass casualty response" out of precaution.
"What we did was set up a triage area for anyone that wants to be evaluated," Reyes said. "We had a large influx of 20-25 people who said they wanted to be evaluated. What we do proactively is we say, 'Alright, let's get all the resources that we have here and let the area hospitals know what is going on,' and that's what a mass casualty response means. It doesn't necessarily mean we have mass casualties."
Twenty-one employees complaining of discomfort were evaluated at the scene by paramedics, and nine were taken to a local hospital. Reyes said their levels of exposure to the chlorine dioxide are unknown at this time.
Preston Trammell told WPTV he was at the facility for a job interview when he saw the white fog rising up from the building.
"It was like a puff of cloud, like a cumulus cloud, a real low cumulus cloud," Trammell said.
Trammell described what he saw as facility employees crowded sidewalks surrounding the facility, unsure whether to leave or stay.
"Police cars had everything blocked off, and they were putting people to the side for their safety, making sure everything was good, everything was OK," Trammell said. "From what I could tell, they handled it pretty good."
Trammell said he was thankful crews handled the situation as quickly as they did, and said he was undeterred by the incident. Trammell said being a Belle Glade native, chemical incidents are just part of the industry he's proud to grow up in.
"I'm proud of my little city, proud of my little city," Trammell said. "Especially when it comes to farming, when it comes to farming we're on top of it."
Trammell said he's still planning on coming back the next day for the job interview at Pioneer Growers, adding he's hoping he gets the job.
"They really are a pioneer in this area," Trammell said.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue said atmospheric tests on the air surrounding the plant and local schools have come back negative for the chemical.
Pioneer Growers has contacted the company that services the chilling system, and that company will come to the plant to conduct any final repairs.
Crews cleared the scene by early afternoon.