Seven Dead in Explosion at Chocolate Factory in West Reading

On Sunday evening, officials announced that seven people had died and all remaining individuals that were unaccounted for have likely been found following Friday's deadly explosion

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Editor's Note (March 27, 2023, 11:59 a.m.): Identities of those who died in the blast have started to be revealed. This story is no longer being updated and new information can be found by clicking here.

Officials announced Sunday evening that they believe they have located the last two missing people in the rubble of the chocolate factory that exploded in Berks County, Pennsylvania, on Friday, bringing the death toll to seven.

West Reading Borough Police Chief Wayne Holben said the last two victims were found at approximately 6:15 p.m. and 8:20 p.m. on Sunday.

On Sunday night, Samantha Kaag, mayor of West Reading, took to social media to announce that the remaining missing individuals had been accounted for, and buildings around the site of the explosion would be condemned as officials investigate the incident.

However, officials said they are waiting on the coroner's report to confirm that these two victims are the last two unaccounted for individuals they were searching for.

The identities of the victims will not be released until officials can confirm that all family members have been contacted.

The three buildings in the area of the explosion have been condemned — R.M Palmer Company building No. 1 and building No. 2, and the C&S Supply building. They are not slated for demolition or uninhabitable, Kaag assured, but officials want people to avoid the area while crews work to clean up and the investigation is underway.

The Pennsylvania State Police are conducting the investigation into what may have caused the explosion that occurred just before 5 p.m. on Friday at the R.M. Palmer Company in West Reading.

The explosion resulted in the destruction of building No. 2 located at 55 S 2nd Avenue and damage to the neighboring Palmer building No. 1 located at 77 S 2nd Avenue, officials said.

The building where the blast occurred was leveled and the force of the explosion moved the building four feet forward, according to investigators.

A Survivor Among the Rubble

Over the weekend, officials provided ongoing updates concerning search and rescue efforts.

In an initial update, at around 10:30 a.m. Saturday, officials in West Reading confirmed that two people had died, five were still missing and one survivor had been pulled from debris on the site overnight.

On Sunday, officials could not immediately provide any update on the injuries the woman who was pulled from the rubble had suffered.

During Sunday morning's briefing, local representatives announced a West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund, intended to help support those who have been displaced or otherwise impacted by Friday's tragedy.

Mayor Kaag commented on how the tragedy has brought the West Reading community together.

"It's wonderful to see our tight-knit community come together for such a travesty and I think that as long as we continue to support each other, to help each other, we're all going to make it through this because we're all in this together," she said. "But right now it's just a little difficult because we wish we had just better news to share."

Reading Hospital said Saturday afternoon it had received 10 patients, of which one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital and another to Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center. Two were admitted to Reading Hospital in good and fair condition, respectively, and the others had been treated and discharged, officials said.

A team of structural engineers and K-9s from a state urban search and rescue task force had been assisting since Friday night and additional personnel arrived Saturday, he said.

Gov. Josh Shapiro, who visited the site Saturday along with the emergency management agency director, vowed “any and all commonwealth resources needed to support ongoing recovery efforts – in addition to the extensive assets that have already been deployed.”

A state police fire marshal was also assisting in the investigation, he said.

Philip Wert, vice president of the West Reading council, said the building had been constructed in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and officials had to “access our archive to pull the blueprints last night, in order to get a better layout of the building and the mechanicals and the utilities, where things are.”

“The silver lining in all this is someone was found alive, someone was found alive that was in rubble, not knowing whether they were going to live or die, and fortunately we found that person and they’ve got a second chance, and hopefully fingers crossed we’re going to find more,” he said.

'It Sounded Like a Bomb Went Off'

A husband and wife, who did not want to be identified, told NBC10 on Saturday that their family member's best friend was among the missing.

"They've known each other for over 30 years and they couldn't reach her," the couple said. "There was no contact. They were waiting at the hospital so we realized as the hours went by that she was probably in the middle of all that."

Frank Gonzalez stood on a hill overlooking the blast site, watching the rubble being cleared. He said his sister, Diana Cedeno, was working at the plant at the time of the blast and was among the missing.

“It’s not good. It’s just stressful waiting, not knowing,” he said, expressing frustration at what he perceived as a lack of communication from authorities about the search. “We keep reaching out, bugging, keeping her name alive just in case she is in there and says her name.”

He said his sister has two adult children, including a son who is deployed overseas. She had a side job decorating for parties and was also studying for ministry at her church, he said.

Gonzalez said his son and nephew had also worked at the plant, but that his son had quit a few months ago “because he said he didn’t like the smell of the gas that was in there.” His son and nephew had complained about the smell to plant supervisors, who told them, "‘It’s all right. We got it. It’s being handled. Don’t worry about it,’” he said.

Doug Olexy was home from work and checking email when the blast shook his house, rattling windows and making the walls vibrate.

“It sounded like a bomb went off,” he recalled Saturday. “I mean, all of our houses shook. I’ve never heard as loud of an explosion in my life.”

He and his neighbors ran out onto the street immediately afterward and were met by thick black smoke. At first, Olexy thought it was a train derailment because there are tracks nearby. Then he learned it was the Palmer plant, which he called a West Reading institution.

“Everybody knows Palmer chocolate,” he said.

R. M. Palmer's Response

A spokesperson for R.M. Palmer released a statement on the deadly explosion on Saturday.

Everyone at RM Palmer is devastated by the tragic events at one of our West Reading facilities and we are focused on supporting our employees and their families. We have lost close friends and colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all who have been impacted. We are sincerely grateful for the extraordinary efforts of all of the first responders and for the support of our Reading community, which has been home to our business for more than 70 years. We will continue to coordinate closely with local and national agencies to assist in the recovery process.

We are anxious to be in touch with all employees and the families of employees who have been impacted, but the company's email, phones, and other communication systems are down, and therefore we are relying currently on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide any available information to impacted families. We will be providing additional information and making contact with employees, impacted families, and the community as soon as possible.

The company released another statement on their Facebook page and also provided a hotline email and number for anyone who needed support.

R.M. Palmer's website says it has been making “chocolate novelties” since 1948 and now has 850 employees at its West Reading headquarters. Its Facebook page includes entries earlier this month advertising Easter treats such as chocolate bunnies and “the newest milk chocolate hollow" in its “bunny family” as one with jelly beans inside. The company is not the region's best-known chocolate manufacturer, with Hershey less than an hour to the west.

Honoring the Lives Lost

On Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro ordered all Pennsylvania flags at "all Commonwealth facilities, public buildings, and grounds across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to fly at half-staff immediately in honor of the victims of the explosion that took place on Friday."

The first-term Democrat encouraged all Pennsylvanians "to participate in this tribute."

The flags will remain lowered until Friday, Shapiro said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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