15 employees taken to hospital following ammonia leak at Birds Eye Foods in Darien

DARIEN -- Fifteen employees were taken to the hospital after an ammonia leak early Sunday, July 29 at Birds Eye Foods in Darien. By evening, we learned just three remained under observation at the hospital, according to a company representative.

Walworth County sheriff's officials said approximately 140 employees were working at the plant on County Road X overnight. Around 5:15 a.m. the Darien Fire Department responded to the plant for a reported ammonia leak.

More than 100 emergency responders were called out to the facility.

"I do know that they went to a fifth alarm level for ambulances to provide transport to local medical facilities and that plan worked flawlessly," said Chief Steve Hansen, Racine Fire Department.

"It was kind of scary. I was sleeping and I heard lots of sirens and it just kept going and going and going. I just saw police cars, rescue squads, fire trucks going by and by, so I knew something serious had happened," said Sue Scott, neighbor.

In addition to those taken to the hospital, 75 employees were evaluated at the scene.

"There were many, many people rushed to the hospital. That's the last thing we need is to have anybody hurt from whatever happened there. I hope they're all taken care of," said Dave Henderson, neighbor.

"When the ammonia gets down into your lungs, it will cause your lungs to spasm," said Chief Hansen.

The cause of the leak is under investigation. Officials say it's possible it was caused by some sort of mechanical failure. We're told ammonia is used at the facility for the freezing and cooling of food.

"No fire, no explosions, so mechanically I think they're looking at the cause right now," said Walworth County Sheriff Kurt Picknell.

A representative from Pinnacle Foods, the owner of Birds Eye Foods, released this statement:

"There is a situation involving a hazardous material in our plant in Darien, WI. The safety of our employees is our top priority and focus right now. Several employees have been taken to the hospital for medical attention. No further details are available at this time."

The Darien Fire Department requested the Racine Fire Department "Level A Hazardous Materials Response Team" to assist with the detection and remediation of the ammonia leak within the building.

"We're going room by room to release that ammonia slowly so it doesn't create problems in the neighborhood and gets everything down to a safe level," said Chief Hansen.

Hazmat officials said the goal was to release the ammonia outside in small amounts, and said once it hit the atmosphere it would dissipate.

Officials said the EPA and OSHA were notified.

Walworth County sheriff's officials said area residents should not be concerned.

Meantime, there is no word yet on when the vegetable packaging plant will reopen to its employees.