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Chocolate factory explosion leaves two dead, five missing

March 25, 2023 Updated Sat., March 25, 2023 at 9:09 p.m.

Rescue workers continue the search Saturday for people reported missing after an explosion Friday at the R.M. Palmer Co. in West Reading, Pa.  (Tyger Williams)
Rescue workers continue the search Saturday for people reported missing after an explosion Friday at the R.M. Palmer Co. in West Reading, Pa. (Tyger Williams)
By David DeKok, Amanda Holpuch and Michael Levenson New York times

WEST READING, Pa. – Authorities on Saturday searched for the cause of a powerful explosion that ripped through a chocolate factory in West Reading on Friday, killing at least three people, sending a plume of smoke into the air and shaking houses blocks away.

Officials said that at least four people remained missing, although one person was found alive in the rubble overnight.

That discovery “provides hope that others still might be found,” said Wayne Holben, the West Reading police chief. Search and rescue workers were clearing debris Saturday and using dogs and specialized imaging equipment to find signs of life, he said. The explosion, which occurred about 5 p.m., destroyed one building and damaged another at R.M. Palmer Co.’s factory, Holben said at a news conference Friday. The cause of the explosion was under investigation, he said.

The chocolate factory is just west of the Schuylkill River and one block from Penn Avenue, a busy thoroughfare lined with cafes, ice cream shops and restaurants in West Reading, a borough of about 4,500 people that is about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

A two-story factory building was flattened in the explosion, and on Saturday an excavator moved through mounds of damaged wood and warped metal where it once stood.

Frankie Gonzalez, 40, stood on a hillside overlooking the damage Saturday afternoon, waiting for an update on his sister, Diana Cedeno, 45, a factory worker who has been missing since the explosion. Gonzalez said his family had waited at the hospital all night, unsure if Cedeno was even there.

He said that Cedeno, who is married and has a 25-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter, packaged candy at the factory.

Gonzalez said other workers had told him that before the explosion, they had been warning one another that they smelled natural gas and reported it to plant managers. He said that his son and a nephew had worked at the factory within the past year and had also told their supervisors they smelled gas.

Joseph Swope, a spokesperson for UGI Utilities, a natural gas and electric company that serves the area, said that the company was cooperating in the investigation and that it was helping emergency workers Saturday.

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

Joshua Ramos, 30, said he was waiting to hear about the condition of his friend Ziomaru Ivette, 28, who was hospitalized with injuries from the blast.

“They said she’s hanging in there,” Ramos said. “I hope she makes it. It’s heartbreaking.”

On Saturday morning, state and local officials reported different death tolls from the explosion.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency said that five people had died and six others were missing. Officials in West Reading disputed those numbers and said that two people had died.

Early on Saturday afternoon, Ruth A. Miller, the communications director for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said in an email that Berks County had told the agency that two people had died and five people were missing.

At least 10 people had been admitted to Reading Hospital, a spokesperson, Jessica Bezler, said in an email Saturday. She said two of the patients had been transferred, two had been admitted in fair condition and the others were discharged.

The explosion sent a column of debris, flames and dust shooting into the air, as shown in a video that was captured by weather cameras and that Eddie Kadhim, a reporter for Fox 29 News in Philadelphia, shared on Twitter.

“The explosion was so big that it moved that building 4 feet forward,” Mayor Samantha Kaag, who is also a firefighter, said at the news conference Friday after she responded to the scene.

In an interview, 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.”

R.M. Palmer was founded in 1948 and employs around 850 people, according to its website. It is known for making seasonal chocolates, including hollow milk chocolate bunnies for Easter.

Philip Wert, the vice president for the West Reading Borough Council, said at a news conference 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.

In a statement on Facebook, R.M. Palmer said it was devastated by the explosion and was focused on supporting its employees and 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.

The company said that its phones, email and other communication systems were down and that it was relying on emergency medical workers and disaster recovery organizations to help relay information.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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