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All 7 victims found in Pennsylvania chocolate factory explosion

Search on for missing in deadly chocolate factory explosion
Posted at 8:12 AM, Mar 26, 2023

WEST READING, Pa. — All seven bodies have been recovered from the site of a powerful explosion at a chocolate factory in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, officials said.

West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag said in a statement Sunday night that none of the victims will be named until officials are certain that all families have been contacted.

“Please understand that this is a devastating loss, but we are truly grateful to bring closure to the families involved in the upcoming days,” Kaag said.

Police Chief Wayne Holben said at a press briefing just after 9 p.m. that rescue workers had found the bodies earlier in the evening and that they are believed to be the remaining two individuals who were listed as missing earlier in the day. Their identities will be confirmed by the Berks County Coroner’s Office, he said.

One of the victims was found around 6:50 p.m., and the other around 8:20 p.m., Holben said. The deaths bring the total number killed in the blast to seven.

Earlier Kaag confirmed to the Associated Press that the fifth body was found Sunday morning by first responders and confirmed dead by the Berks County Coroner’s Office. The coroner was unable to confirm the identity of that person, Kaag said.

West Reading Borough Chief of Police Wayne Holben confirmed the body of a fourth victim was found under debris early Sunday at the R.M. Palmer Co. plant in the borough of West Reading, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia.

Holben asked for continued prayers from the community and vowed that rescuers and officials “will not rest until every single person affected by this tragedy has been accounted for” from the blast that occurred just before 5 p.m. Friday.

Rescue crews had been using heat imaging equipment and dogs to search for possible survivors after the blast destroyed one building and damaged a neighboring building. Crews were using heavy equipment to methodically and carefully pull debris from the site, Holben said.

Three buildings around the site will be condemned as a precaution, Kaag said.

“This does not mean they are slated for demolition or uninhabitable,” she said. “Simply that there will still be work happening around them as we proceed and they will need to be looked at further by structural engineers.”

Borough Fire Chief Chad Moyer said Saturday night that the chance of finding survivors was “decreasing rapidly” due to the explosion's force and the amount of time that had passed. Kaag said officials were “still hopeful to at least get some answers and get some recoveries so that people have that reassurance and that closure.”

Officials said they had no update on the condition of a woman pulled alive from the rubble early Saturday. Kaag said she had apparently been on the second floor and was found in a “hopeful circumstance,” calling out to rescuers despite her injuries after a dog located her.

Officials also reported no updates on the conditions of those taken to hospitals. Reading Hospital said it received 10 patients and transferred two to other facilities, while two others were admitted in good and fair condition respectively and the others had been discharged.

R.M. Palmer said in a statement Saturday afternoon that everyone at the company was “devastated" and it was reaching out to employees and their families through first responders and disaster recovery organizations because its communication systems were down.

Kaag, a volunteer firefighter herself, said rescue crews had been working 12- to 16-hour shifts and were so dedicated to continuing the search that “you have to pull them away at this point" to swap out and get some rest.

Gov. Josh Shapiro visited the site Saturday and vowed support from the state.

Kaag said some residents have reported damage to windows from the blast, and she asked people to “take a walk around your house” and report any damage.

State and local fire investigators are continuing to examine the scene to try to determine the cause of the blast.

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

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 is deployed overseas. She has a side job decorating for parties and has also been 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.

Frank DeJesus said his stepdaughter, Arelis Rivera Santiago, a Palmer employee, was working in the building next door at the time of the blast. The ceiling caved, and she had to crawl under machinery to make it out, he said. DeJesus said he rushed to the scene to find her “shaking and crying hysterically," and she was still too shaken to speak about what had happened.

Plant employees, including his stepdaughter, had complained about smelling gas throughout the day Friday, DeJesus said.

“Everyone complained about smelling gas, and they kept making them work,” he said. “The supervisors told them it was nothing. It was being taken care of.”

A message was sent earlier to R.M. Palmer seeking comment about the blast.

Doug Olexy was home from work and checking email when the blast shook his house, rattling windows and making the walls vibrate.

“It sounded like a bomb went off,” he recalled Saturday. “I mean, all of our houses shook. I’ve never heard as loud of an explosion in my life.”

He and his neighbors ran out onto the street immediately afterward and were met by thick black smoke. At first, Olexy thought it was a train derailment because there are tracks nearby. Then he learned it was the Palmer plant, which he called a West Reading institution.

“Everybody knows Palmer chocolate,” he said.

R.M. Palmer's website says it has been making chocolate novelties since 1948 and now has 850 employees at its West Reading headquarters. Its Facebook page includes entries earlier this month advertising Easter treats such as chocolate bunnies and “the newest milk chocolate hollow" in its “bunny family” as one with jelly beans inside. The company is by no means the region's best-known chocolate manufacturer, however, with Hershey less than an hour to the west.