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West Reading chocolate factory explosion kills 4 people, 3 still missing

  • By Kaitlyn Radde/NPR and Michael Rubinkam and Ron Todt/The Associated Press
Members of PA-1 Task Force sift through the rubble on March 25, for several missing people after an explosion  at R.M. Palmer Co. on March 24, 2023 after an explosion destroyed part of the candy factory. (Jeremy Long - WITF)

Members of PA-1 Task Force sift through the rubble on March 25, for several missing people after an explosion at R.M. Palmer Co. on March 24, 2023 after an explosion destroyed part of the candy factory. (Jeremy Long - WITF)

A fourth body has been recovered from the debris of a chocolate factory in West Reading that was partly destroy by an explosion on Friday.

Officials announced at a press conference Sunday morning that a fourth body was found and three people remain missing.

Previously reported 

A third body has been recovered from the site where an explosion destroyed part of a chocolate factory in West Reading.

“Currently, we have four individuals that are unaccounted for, due to the violence of the explosion, and the amount of time that has passed, the chance of finding survivors is decreasing rapidly,” West Reading Fire Chief Chad Moyer said at a press conference Saturday night.

West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben said roadways will be shut down until at least 8 a.m. Monday morning, March 27. But that date and time is subject to change depending on operations.

Berks County Community Foundation and the United Way of Berks County have created a fund to aid victims of the explosion.

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this reporting.  [Note: This post was updated to correct Police Chief Wayne Holben’s name.]

Previously reported 

An explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pa., on Friday killed two people and left five missing, authorities said at a news conference Saturday morning. Police Chief Wayne Holben said rescuers found one person alive, offering hope for finding more as rescue efforts continue.

The explosion just before 5 p.m. Friday at the R.M. Palmer Co. plant destroyed one building and damaged another nearby. The cause of the explosion is under investigation, Mayor Samantha Kaag said.

Rescuers are beginning to move debris and using canines to search for the remaining five missing people. Earlier Saturday, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency reported that five people died, which Kaag said is inaccurate.

“This morning at approximately 1 a.m., I issued a declaration of emergency to gather resources for the tragedy,” Kaag said. “To the residents of the borough, I would like to directly address concerns of safety. This declaration is strictly to access more resources for emergency responders.”

About eight people were taken to Reading Hospital on Friday evening, Kaag said. Authorities could not offer updates on their condition.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency earlier reported that five people had died, but on Saturday afternoon said only two were confirmed dead with five missing.

People were asked to move away from the site of the blast, but no evacuations were ordered. The Associated Press reported that some residents were displaced from a damaged apartment building nearby.

“It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Kristen Wisniewski, who lives three blocks from the factory, told local TV station 6abc. “It literally felt like the ground fell out from underneath you. The whole house shook and my dogs froze. They couldn’t move, it was scary.”

The company has made “seasonal chocolate novelties” since 1948 and employs 850 people at its West Reading headquarters, about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

“R.M. Palmer has been a presence in the community for decades now,” West Reading Borough Council Vice President Phil Wert said, donating candy to Easter egg hunts and giving back to the community. He said it’s the first responders’ and elected officials’ responsibility “to give back to them because they’ve given to us.”

A UGI Utilities spokesperson said crews were brought in after damage from the blast led to the release of gas that was helping to feed the fire.

“We did not receive any calls regarding a gas leak or gas order prior to the incident, but we are cooperating with the investigation and part of that will be to check all our facilities in the vicinity,” UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope said Saturday.

R.M. Palmer said in a statement late Saturday that everyone at the company was “devastated by the tragic events” and “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,” the company said, expressing gratitude to the “extraordinary efforts” of first responders and the support of the Reading community, “which has been home to our business for more than 70 years.”

R.M. Palmer said it was anxious to get in touch with its employees and their families. But its email, phones and other communication systems were down, and it was relying on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide information to affected families. The company said it would be “providing additional information and making contact with employees, impacted families, and the community as soon as possible.”

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, repectively, and the others had been discharged, officials 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 team of structural engineers and K-9s from a state urban search and rescue task force had been assisting since last night and additional personnel arrived Saturday, he said. 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.

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’s 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.

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