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Fatal explosion at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania

Some residents were displaced from a neighboring apartment building that was damaged in the explosion.
Posted at 8:56 AM, Mar 25, 2023

An explosion at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania on Friday killed two people and left five people missing, authorities said. One person was pulled from the rubble overnight.

Rescue crews using dogs and imaging equipment continued to search through the rubble Saturday — hours after the blast that erupted just before 5 p.m. Friday at the R.M. Palmer Co. plant in the borough of West Reading, about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

West Reading officials said Saturday they could confirm only two fatalities. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency had earlier said there were five fatalities, citing county emergency management officials, but after an update from the county also indicated that two had died and five were missing.

Chief of Police Wayne Holben said the rescue of one person from the rubble "provides hope that others still may be found." Rescue workers were continuing a thorough search using specialized equipment and techniques. Officials said dogs and imaging equipment were being used to look for signs of life during the careful removal of debris.

Holben said the blast destroyed one building and damaged a neighboring building. The cause remains under investigation, he said.

"It's pretty leveled," Mayor Samantha Kaag said of the explosion site. "The building in the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward."

A UGI Utilities spokesperson said crews were brought in after damage from the blast led to the release of gas that was helping to feed the fire.

"We did not receive any calls regarding a gas leak or gas order prior to the incident, but we are cooperating with the investigation and part of that will be to check all our facilities in the vicinity," UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope said Saturday.

Reading Hospital said Saturday afternoon it had received 10 patients, of which one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital and another to Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center. Two were admitted to Reading Hospital in good and fair condition, repectively, and the others had been discharged, officials said.

Kaag said people were asked to move back about a block in each direction but no evacuations were ordered. She had issued an emergency declaration only to allow more resources for first responders. Borough manager Dean Murray said some residents were displaced from the damaged apartment building.

Philip Wert, vice president of the West Reading council, said the building had been constructed in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and officials had to "access our archive to pull the blueprints last night, in order to get a better layout of the building and the mechanicals and the utilities, where things are."

"The silver lining in all this is someone was found alive, someone was found alive that was in rubble, not knowing whether they were going to live or die, and fortunately we found that person and they've got a second chance, and hopefully fingers crossed we're going to find more," he said.

Officials said R.M. Palmer, which Murray described as "a staple of the borough," was expected to make a statement shortly.

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, with Hershey less than an hour to the west.