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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Death toll rises to 7 after Pennsylvania chocolate factory explosion

By María Luisa Paúl Washington Post

Just before 5 p.m. on Friday, a sudden and ferocious boom resounded from a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pennsylvania – a powerful blast that sent shrapnel and smoke into the air, damaging nearby buildings, displacing residents and leaving seven people dead in the small borough some 49 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

On Sunday evening, officials announced all victims were accounted for after two bodies were found at approximately 6:15 p.m. by rescuers who had been desperately combing through the rubble of the leveled building.

“This is still a devastating loss,” said West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag. “But we are truly grateful to be able to account for all presumptive missing and bring closure to families involved in the upcoming days.”

Officials said an investigation is underway to determine what caused the explosion at R.M. Palmer, a company known for its seasonal candies and chocolate bunnies that has been in operation since 1948. Three surrounding buildings have been condemned “as a precaution,” Kaag said.

The announcement late Sunday brought an end to a weekend-long rescue and recovery operation. The rumble shook throughout nearby blocks, cracking windows and even moving another building four feet forward, Kaag said on Friday.

“All of a sudden, it just sounded like the earth was ending,” Ella Perez, who owns a restaurant near the chocolate factory, told WFMZ-TV. “We go outside and we saw a big, black cloud of smoke.”

For two days, efforts to locate survivors became a race against time. The search included the use of heat-imaging devices, drones and heavy equipment “to methodically pull debris away from the site,” West Reading police Chief Wayne Holben said.

The number of workers inside the factory at the time of the blast remains unclear.

“We have lost close friends and colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all who have been impacted,” R.M. Palmer said in a statement, adding that the company is “devastated by the tragic event.”

After the explosion, Reading Hospital received 10 patients, Tower Health spokeswoman Jessica Bezler said in a statement to the Washington Post. As of Sunday night, “one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital, two have been admitted and are in good and fair condition, and the others have been discharged,” Bezler added.

Saturday brought a glimmer of hope to the town of some 4,500 residents when rescuers pulled a woman from the rubble – the only person to have been found alive throughout the search operation. The woman was located by a rescue dog after calling for help, officials said.

Ultimately, the hope of finding survivors came to an end Sunday night. Borough officials said they would not yet publicly identify the victims “out of privacy and respect for the families.”

Over the weekend, the United Way of Berks County and the Berks County Community Foundation announced the creation of the West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund, which will aid organizations working to assist victims’ families and displaced residents.

News of the tragedy rippled across the neighboring city of Reading, where there was overwhelming interest from the community about what could be done to lend a helping hand, Mayor Eddie Moran said Sunday.

A candlelight vigil will take place Friday night in the middle of a bridge that unites the two communities “to have a moment of silence and a moment of prayer for all those that have been affected by this incident,” Moran said.

“We’re going to invite the community to please continue to pray, to continue to keep those that have been directly affected in their prayers and be a good neighbor to one another,” he added.