An explosion at R.M. Palmer Co. chocolate factory in West Reading, PA on Sunday left seven dead and ten more injured. Investigators have not determined what caused the explosion, which occurred Friday afternoon. West Reading is about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The sixth and seventh bodies were recovered late Sunday as rescue crews continued to sift through the wreckage for more victims, although the chance of finding survivors is decreasing rapidly. “I want to assure you all that we will not rest until every single person affected by this tragedy has been accounted for,” said Wayne Holben, West Reading police chief. The chocolate company employs 850 people, according to its website. The factory in West Reading has been there since the early 1960s and was originally founded in 1948 by Richard M. Palmer Sr.
By Dennis Romero & Julianne McShane; March 26, 2023
The remains of two more victims of the chocolate factory explosion in Pennsylvania were discovered late Sunday, bringing its death toll to seven, authorities in the borough of West Reading said.
It’s believed the two correspond to two people believed to have gone missing after Friday’s blast, West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben said at an evening news conference.
The find closes search operations at R.M. Palmer Co., as no other people connected to the location were missing.
“I want to assure you all that we will not rest until every single person affected by this tragedy has been accounted for,” Holben said earlier in the day. “We are fully committed to this task, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that we bring closure to all those involved.”
Identities of the dead were unavailable, and officials would not discuss their relationships to the factory. The Berks County Coroner’s Office, which will establish identity and cause of death for the victims, did not immediately respond to a request for information.
Holben said officials are using heavy equipment to pull debris away from the site “to make sure we are taking as much care as possible for individuals that are still inside,” which he characterized as “a long process.”
West Reading Fire Chief Chad Moyer said Saturday night that the chances of finding survivors had decreased rapidly “due to the violence of the explosion and the amount of time that has passed,” according to NBC Philadelphia.
West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag said Sunday that the White House reached out Saturday to offer its assistance.
“They’ve offered condolences, asked us that if we need anything to please reach out,” Kaag said. “So we are getting calls from numerous sources, and we’re grateful for all of them. We’re grateful the resources that they’re offering. Right now we’re just kind of trying to get our feet on the ground and figure out where we can put them and how we can delegate them.”
Officials also announced Sunday that they had launched a West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund to support the organizations helping families affected by the blast and people who were displaced from their homes or employment.
A facility spokesperson said 10 people who survived with injuries were taken to Reading Hospital in the West Reading borough, an area of Berks County about 63 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
The elapsed time has not added to the public’s understanding of what happened. Moyer said local and state fire investigators were continuing to probe the cause of the explosion.
There were also initial discrepancies about the number of victims, NBC Philadelphia reported: A report Saturday morning from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency indicated that five people had died and six remained unaccounted for, but at a news conference later that morning, Kaag said that information was inaccurate, characterizing the situation as “a tragic event that we are still gathering information on.”
Kaag said the blast just before 5 p.m. Friday “leveled” the plant.
Richard M. Palmer Sr. founded the company in 1948, when he sold a handful of chocolates, including bunnies. R.M. Palmer Co. employs 850 people today, according to its website.
In a statement, the company expressed anguish, said it has lost “close friends and colleagues,” and said it was trying to reach out to employees despite email and phone failure after the blast.
“Everyone at RM Palmer is devastated by the tragic events at one of our West Reading facilities and we are focused on supporting our employees and their families,” the company said.
Photo: Ben Hasty/AP