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March 26, 2023

Five dead, two missing following West Reading chocolate factory explosion

Rescue crews continue searching for victims two days after the disaster at the R.M. Palmer Company plant, officials say

Investigations Explosions
west reading chocolate factory explosion Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Five people have now been confirmed dead and two people remain missing following an explosion on Friday at R.M. Palmer Company chocolate factory in West Reading.

After authorities located another body Sunday afternoon, five people have now been confirmed dead following a disaster on Friday at a Berks County chocolate factory. Two people remain unaccounted for, according to officials.

The incident occurred at the R.M. Palmer Company plant in West Reading around 5 p.m., when a fire explosion destroyed one building and caused severe damage to another at the factory. Rescue crews have remained on the scene searching for possible survivors.

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West Reading Borough Chief of Police Wayne Holben vowed that rescuers and officials "will not rest until every single person affected by this tragedy has been accounted for," 6ABC reported.

Over the past two days, crews have used heat imaging equipment and dogs to search for possible survivors. One survivor was pulled from the rubble overnight Friday, but further information on the person's condition was unavailable.

Rescuers have since begun using heavy equipment to carefully extract debris from the site.

The Friday blast resulted in the destruction of building No. 2, located at 55 S 2nd Avenue, and damage to the neighboring building No. 1, at 77 S 2nd Avenue. The building where the explosion occurred was leveled, with the force of the explosion relocating the building four feet forward, NBC10 reported. Smoke filled the air and the blast shook houses located blocks away.

Ten patients had been received by Reading Hospital as of Saturday afternoon. Two of the patients were transferred, two had been admitted in fair condition and the others were discharged. The names of the deceased and the hospitalized people have not been released.

The official cause of the blast also has not yet been released, and an investigation is ongoing. 

UGI Utilities, a natural gas and electric company that serves the area, has been cooperating in the investigation and aiding emergency workers, according to a spokesperson.

“The explosion damaged some of UGI’s facilities at the site, so gas was turned off to aid the firefighting efforts,” Joseph Swope, a spokesman for UGI Utilities, 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 chocolate factory opened in 1948, according to its website. It is best known for its seasonal chocolates, including milk chocolate Easter bunnies. The company produces 500 products from its West Reading factory – making it one of America's largest confectioners.

The company released two statements Saturday via its Facebook page

"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," R.M. Palmer wrote in the first statement. "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."

In another statement, the confectioner announced that it would be offering grief counseling to all employees in need and that it established a crisis hotline that can be accessed through or by calling 610-374-5224 ext. 539. 

In the wake of the tragedy, Berks County Community Foundation and the United Way of Berks County have partnered to create the West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund to aid community members affected by the explosion. Donations can be made online, or by mailing a check to Berks County Community Foundation (237 Court Street, Reading, PA 19601) and noting "West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund" in the memo line.

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