March 27, 2023
The two people who had been missing following an explosion at a West Reading chocolate factory on Friday have been found dead, officials said Sunday night.
The incident occurred at around 5 p.m. on Friday. A fire explosion at an R.M. Palmer Company plant in West Reading destroyed one building and caused severe damage to another at the factory. Rescue crews remained on the scene for much of the weekend, searching for possible survivors, but all seven people presumed missing have been confirmed dead.
The names of the victims will be released after West Reading officials confirm their families have been notified, Mayor Samantha Kaag said in a statement posted on Instagram late Sunday. One of the victims was found at approximately 6:50 p.m. and the other was found at around 8:20 p.m. on Sunday, the Associated Press reported. One survivor was pulled from the rubble on Saturday, but further information on that person's condition was unavailable.
"As I said tonight (during the latest update) — this is just the beginning as the investigation efforts start and elected officials work to get resources for the victims' families, emergency crews, and the Borough," Kaag wrote. "We will continue to work diligently to get in contact with families on a personal level and provide them and anyone affected (with) resources. I think I speak for everyone around me when I say that we will rest when the families can rest."
Rescuers have since started using heavy equipment to carefully remove debris from the site. The fiery blast resulted in the destruction of building No. 2, located at 55 S. Second Ave., and excessive damage to the neighboring building No. 1, at 77 S. Second Ave.
The building where the explosion occurred was leveled, with the impact from the explosion launching the building four feet forward, NBC10 reported.
Smoke filled the air and the blast shook houses located blocks away. Three buildings around the site will be condemned as the investigation gets underway and officials look to determine the cause of the explosion, Kaag said. This does not mean that the neighboring buildings will be demolished or have been deemed uninhabitable, but they will need to be looked at by structural engineers to ensure their safety.
These buildings include C&S Medical Supply at 200 Penn Ave., RM Palmer building No. 1 and an apartment building and church on the corner of Second and Penn avenues.
Reading Hospital received 10 patients as of Saturday afternoon. Two patients have been transferred, two have been admitted in fair condition and others were discharged.
UGI Utilities, a natural gas and electric company that serves the West Reading area, has been cooperating with investigators and aiding emergency crews, officials said.
"The explosion damaged some of UGI's facilities at the site, so gas was turned off to aid the firefighting efforts," Joseph Swope, a UGI spokesperson, told The New York Times. "UGI did not receive a call prior to the incident for a gas odor or gas leak."
R.M. Palmer Company opened its chocolate factory in 1948, according to its website. It's best known for seasonal chocolates, including milk chocolate Easter bunnies. The company produces 500 products from its West Reading factory, making it one of the country's largest confectioners.
The company released several statements on its Facebook page throughout the weekend.
"The tragic events that occurred on Friday have had a profound impact on all of us at R.M. Palmer, and we appreciate the outpouring of support as all of us continue to deal with the loss of our friends and coworkers," the company's latest statement reads. "We offer our heartfelt condolences to those families who have lost loved ones and and hope those injured will recover quickly."
R.M. Palmer has set up a crisis hotline for people who need support. Impacted residents and survivors can contact the hotline by email at email@example.com or by phone at (610) 374-5224 ext. 539.
In response to the crisis, nonprofits in Berks County have raised more than $24,000 to aid and support the families of those who died from the explosion, 6ABC reported.
Berks County Community Foundation and United Way of Berks County have partnered to set up the West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund to support community members impacted by the explosion. Donations can be made online or by mailing a check to Berks County Community Foundation at 237 Court St. in Reading, Pennsylvania with "West Reading Recovery Fund" in the memo line.