Four Dead, at Least Three Missing, More Injured, in Pa. Chocolate Factory Explosion

27 Mar, 2023 Liz Carey

                               

West Reading, PA (WorkersCompensation.com) – Officials disagreed on how many had been killed and injured in a chocolate factory explosion in Pennsylvania on Friday. 

On Sunday, Wayne Holben, West Reading Police Chief, said at least four people are dead, and three are missing after an explosion rocked through the R.M. Palmer Company factory in West Reading. Officials with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency on Saturday put the number of dead at five and the number of missing at six. At least 8 people have been admitted to Reading Hospital, a hospital spokesperson told CNN on Saturday. One of them had been transferred, two had been admitted and the rest had been treated and released, they said.  

Officials said they are investigating the explosion to determine a cause. The explosion send a column of debris, flames and dust into the air and shook houses nearby. Video of the explosion from a nearby weather camera shows the massive explosion sending debris flying and setting off a multi-alarm fire. The explosion flattened the two-story building, video shows.  

“The explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward,” Mayor Samantha Kaag, who is also a firefighter, said at the news conference on Friday after she responded to the scene. 

Kaag said she had felt the explosion at her house, four or five blocks from the factory. 

“I didn’t hear a boom,” she said. “I just felt it shake my house.”

As of Saturday, first responders were searching through the rubble to find anyone who may still be alive Overnight, one person was found alive in the remains of the building. Holben said the survivor’s discovery gave crews and residents hope “that others still might be found.” Search and rescue workers using dogs and special imaging equipment spent the day Saturday clearing debris, looking for signs of life.  

Area residents told the New York Times that employees had complained of a gas smell at the plant for weeks. Frankie Gonzalez told the Times workers had told him before the explosion that they had been warning each other of smelling natural gas. Gonzalez said they reported it to the plant managers. Gonzalez said his son and a nephew also worked at the factory within the past year and had also complained of smelling gas, something they told him they had reported to their supervisors.  

A spokesman for UGI Utilities that serves the area, said the company was cooperating with investigators and helping emergency workers on Saturday.  

“The explosion damaged some of UGI’s facilities at the site, so gas was turned off to aid the firefighting efforts,” he said according to the Times. “UGI did not receive a call prior to the incident for a gas odor or gas leak.” 

R. M. Palmer employs around 850 people, according to its website, and makes chocolate, including seasonal chocolates like hollow milk chocolate bunnies and gold-wrapped coins.  

In a statement on Facebook, the company said it was devastated by the explosion and would be working to help its 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.

While the explosion knocked out the company’s phones, email and other communication systems, officials with R. M Palmer said they were relying on emergency medical workers and disaster recovery associations to help get information to the families of employees who are still missing.  

Philip Wert, the vice president for the West Reading Borough Council, said at a news conference on Saturday that R.M. Palmer had been a “community partner” for decades. 

“Whether it is donating candy for our Easter egg hunt and things like that, they have been an upstanding member of the community,” he said. 

County officials said they were committed to supporting the community in the aftermath of the explosion.  

"The County of Berks wishes to extend our deepest sympathy and support to the families, friends and neighbors affected by the tragic explosion at R.M. Palmer Company in West Reading,” the county said in a statement on Saturday night. “While our community is still grappling with the sobering reality of this incident, we have been encouraged by how quickly our residents have rallied together to surround West Reading with support. We would like to thank and recognize our emergency personnel at the local, county and state levels, especially those who mobilized from outside of Berks County to assist.”


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    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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