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Death toll climbs to 7 in Pennsylvania candy factory explosion; all missing accounted for

Posted at 2:40 PM, Mar 31, 2023

WEST READING, Pa. — Two additional bodies have been found by search and rescue teams working to locate missing individuals after the explosion of an eastern Pennsylvania candy factory last week, raising the incident's death toll to seven people, officials said earlier this week.

"We do believe them to be the remaining presumptive missing individuals," Wayne Holben, Chief of the West Reading Police Department, said at a news conference.

Berks County Coroner John A. Fielding identified those killed as Amy Sandoe, 49, of Ephrata; Domingo Cruz, 60, Reading; Xiorky D. Nunez, 30, of Reading; Susan H. Halvonik, 63, Upper Providence Township; Michael D Breedy, 62, Marion Township; Diana M Cedeno, 44, of Reading; and Judith Lopez-Moran, 55, of Reading.

The preliminary cause of death for all the victims was related to blast injuries, though the final autopsy report is expected in a month, Fielding said during a news conference.

"We deal with tragic situations on a regular basis but rarely have we witnessed devastation and heartbreak like this," Fielding said. "Those innocent people who were cruelly taken from us remain loved and remembered."

Now that all missing individuals have been accounted for, the focus will shift to an investigation of the explosion, West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag said.

The explosion erupted shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, leveling the R.M. Palmer Co. facility and stunning West Reading -- a community of about 4,500 people which has been home to the chocolatier's operation for more than six decades.

Three buildings surrounding the factory will be condemned as a precaution, Kaag said. She explained the buildings need to be assessed by structural engineers before "being released." "This does not mean they are slated for demolition or uninhabitable," she said in a statement.

Search and rescue teams raced against time over the weekend as they looked for missing people, using drones and heat imaging devices before turning to heavy equipment to "methodically" remove rubble, Holben said.

One woman was rescued alive among the rubble on Saturday morning, the police chief said. The survivor was conscious when she was discovered, he said, but there was no update on her condition as of Sunday.

SCENE VIDEO: 2 dead, 5 missing in chocolate factory explosion

A candlelight vigil will be held for the victims at 7:30 p.m. Friday, the mayor announced. Kaag said in her statement the victims will not be identified until their families have been notified and "have had time to process."

"We will continue to work diligently to get in contact with families on a personal level and provide them and anyone affected resources," the mayor said. "I think I speak for everyone around me when I say that we will rest when the families can rest."

At least eight people were hospitalized at the Reading Hospital following the blast, a spokesperson for the hospital told CNN. As of Saturday, two were in fair condition, five had been discharged and one had been transferred to another facility.

R.M. Palmer said in a statement the explosion has had a "profound impact" on its company.

"We appreciate the outpouring of support as all of us continue to deal with the loss of our friends and co-workers. We offer our heartfelt condolences to those families who have lost loved ones and hope those injured will recover quickly," said the statement posted on the company's Facebook page.

Community rallies to support those impacted

In the days following Friday's explosion, West Reading has seen "the absolute best that our tight-knit community has to offer," Borough Council President Ryan Lineaweaver said Sunday.

"We've heard stories of neighbors running out of their homes to help before the first responders even arrived on the scene," he said. "We've seen our neighbors, businesses, community partners, provide food, water -- anything that's needed -- to first responders."

Lineaweaver thanked first responders, some of whom arrived from neighboring communities to support the search and recovery operation. Some emergency teams were working shifts of 12 hours or longer in their efforts to recover victims, Kaag said.

Resident Chris Suglia, who lives about two blocks from the factory, told CNN he ran outside with his neighbors after hearing the explosion.

"It almost sounded like a vehicle of some sort ran into the house," he said. "The house shook and the windows shook, and it was you know, pretty crazy."

"We just all came together as a community and asked each other, 'Is everyone OK?' You know, 'Is everyone all right?,'" Suglia said.

R.M. Palmer has long been a fixture in the local community, he said. The company has operated in the West Reading facility since 1959, according to its website.

"It's sad. It's devastating. I mean nobody expects to go to work and not come home you know, especially for something like that," Suglia said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro visited the explosion site on Saturday and was briefed by local leaders, a release from his office said. The governor pledged to provide resources needed to support recovery efforts.

"Our hearts break for the families of those who didn't come home," Shapiro said.

A disaster recovery fund has been established for those impacted by the blast. Funds raised will be granted to organizations supporting victims' families, individuals displaced from their homes due to the explosion and those who have lost employment.