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Thousands evacuated after ammonia leak at Tar Heel plant

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TAR HEEL, NC (WWAY) -- Smithfield Foods says it is working with local emergency agencies to determine the cause of an apparent ammonia leak at its packing plant in Tar Heel in Bladen County, a company spokeswoman said.

An employee tells us there was an ammonia explosion, which caused workers to have burning eyes and made it hard to breathe. Witnesses say there was a plume of smoke, and then workers started choking.

Around 11 a.m. about 2,400 workers were evacuated from the world's largest pork processing plant after a water tank knocked off the valve of an inactive ammonia tank.

Those workers were the first shift. The second shift of about 2,400 workers will not come to work today.

About eight or nine people went to the hospital for observation. The company is not sure if that's because of exposure to the ammonia or from heat exhaustion while they waited outside.

The incident is still under investigation.

A Smithfield representative said safety is a priority.

"Things do happen, but if you're properly trained, and properly prepared, which we were, and we are, we're prepared to handle what happens and especially with the support we receive from the agencies in the area," Smithfield's Dennis Pittman said.

The company won't know when things will be back up and running until at least tomorrow. Still no word on if workers will be paid for missed shifts.

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