Franklin, NC -- One person has died and 16 others were hospitalized from exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide in a packing facility at a Macon County farm, authorities said.
Emergency responders found two workers unresponsive in what was initially reported as a gas leak about 7 p.m. Friday at Norton Creek Farms on Prentiss Bridge Road, said Matt Mason, assistant chief of Clarks Creek Fire and Rescue.
Also overcome by the toxic gas were four bystanders who stopped to help and 11 personnel with the Macon County Sheriff's Office, Emergency Management Services and local fire departments, he said.
Mason said the two workers were found inside a refrigerated packing house where fruits and vegetables are stored. One suffered cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead at Angel Medical Center in Franklin. The other was airlifted to Greenville (S.C.) Memorial Hospital. His condition was unknown. The names of the victims were not available.
The rest were taken to Angel Medical with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning including vomiting and dizziness. Mason said all the first responders were treated and released, but he was unsure of the conditions of the bystanders.
Representatives of the N.C. Division of Occupational Safety and Health were dispatched to the scene to determine the cause of the leak, he said.
"We assume the leak was inside the unit," Mason said. "We don't know the cause or where it came from or why.
"We monitored the (carbon monoxide) levels once we got there, and the highest reading we got was 1,000 parts per million. That's highly concentrated for a CO level. The levels were so high that they didn't have to be inside the facility to receive exposure."
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by vehicles, engines, stoves and heating systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exposure to high levels blocks oxygen from getting into the body, which can damage tissues and result in death.
"The thing I'm grateful for is we have responders ready to put their lives on the line whether paid or volunteer," Mason said. "Sometimes you don't know what you're walking into, (which) is the dangerous part."
Norton Creek Farms, located about 4 miles south of Franklin, is Macon County's largest farming operation, he said.