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Casualties mount in Pennsylvania chocolate factory explosion

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the blast.
Emergency responders and heavy equipment are seen at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory.
Posted at 6:37 PM, Mar 26, 2023

A fifth body has been recovered from the site of a powerful explosion at a chocolate factory in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania and two remained unaccounted for Sunday.

West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag said in an email to the Associated Press that the fifth body was found Sunday morning by first responders and confirmed dead by the 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 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 have 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 now using heavy equipment to methodically and carefully pull debris from the site, Holben said.

Smoke rises from an explosion at the R.M. Palmer Co. plant in West Reading, Pennsylvania.

Fatal explosion at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania

Some residents were displaced from a neighboring apartment building that was damaged in the explosion.

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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."

"We're just trying to hold out as much hope as we can to get the right answers, to get quality answers, to get information to those that are affected and then let it go over to the investigation," Kaag said.

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.