7 confirmed dead after explosion at West Reading chocolate factory

Aftermath of the Palmer chocolate factory explosion in West Reading, Pa.
Photo credit Hadas Kuznits/KYW Newsradio

UPDATED: March 27, 6:15 a.m.

WEST READING, Pa. (KYW Newsradio) — All seven bodies have been recovered at the site of an explosion Friday afternoon at a chocolate factory, R.M. Palmer Co. plant, in Berks County.

Police Chief Wayne Holben said at a press briefing just after 9 p.m. Sunday that rescue workers had found the bodies earlier in the evening and that they are believed to be the remaining two individuals who were listed as missing earlier in the day. Their identities will be confirmed by the Berks County Coroner’s Office, he said.

One of the victims was found around 6:50 p.m., and the other around 8:20 p.m., Holben said. The deaths bring the total number killed in the blast to seven.

One person was pulled from the rubble alive Saturday.

Dozens of emergency personnel from local fire and police departments and the Pennsylvania search and rescue task force, and structural experts, remain on the scene, digging through debris. Firefighters and other rescue workers from as far as Philadelphia have been working on the scene since the explosion.

“It’s a coordinated effort between the search crews and heavy equipment to try and remove the debris and rubble to try to locate the remaining victims," said Fire Chief Chad Moyer.

Some members of the West Reading Fire Department are taking their gear home and sleeping in it to return to work and continue the search the next day.

West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag said in a statement Sunday night that none of the victims will be named until officials are certain that all families have been contacted.

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A community shaken

The explosion Friday around 5 p.m. could be felt from several blocks away. Neighbors stopped by Saturday to watch the search, many in disbelief and heartbroken.

"I had no idea what happened. I thought something exploded in my house," neighbor Anthony Tomczak told KYW Newsradio. "I just stepped outside to see if it was something outside ... all my neighbors on the street were out saying, 'Hey, what was that?'"

Kaag said nearby buildings were also damaged. "It's pretty leveled. Unfortunately, there's not too much to be able to, kind of, salvage from the building. In the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building 4 feet."

R.M. Palmer was a major employer in the area. Grief counseling is available for those who have lost loved ones in the tragedy.

The company’s communication systems, including email and phones, were knocked out by the explosion — “therefore we are relying currently on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide any available information to impacted families,” according to a statement released Saturday.

"Everyone at R.M. Palmer is devastated. … We have lost close friends and colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all who have been impacted.”

Authorities have yet to say what caused the explosion.

"How did it happen?" asked Tomczak. "In the blink of an eye, the entire building was gone."

Investigation and support

The mayor said the investigation into what caused the explosion is still underway. Out of respect for the privacy of people who are still unsure of the status of their loved ones, certain information cannot be disclosed, Kaag said.

"This is obviously a difficult time for our community, as we continue to search for answers about this terrible tragedy. Our focus now is learning everything we can, continuing to search for the victims and, above all, support the families who have been affected,” Kaag said.

She says it has been a team effort in every respect.

"It's really everybody just genuinely coming together and doing such a diligent and good job, that it's really just like a family and a community down there, and now — I couldn't be more proud of our firefighters, couldn't be more proud of our EMS. I couldn't be more proud of anyone down there. We're really all working as a team," Kaag said.

"As a firefighter … you have to pull them away at this point, because they don't want to stop. You know … they want to find something. They want to get answers. They want to do their due diligence. … So it's really at this point kind of pulling people to get them to swap out to go home and take a nap."

Gov. Josh Shapiro visited the site of the explosion Saturday afternoon and has deployed PEMA and state police to support the search and rescue efforts. Shapiro pledged his administration's support as the community recovers.

Kaag said a call came Saturday from the White House. “They've offered condolences. Asked us that, if we need anything, to please reach out.”

Kaag expressed gratitude for the numerous calls and the resources being offered. “Right now we're just kind of trying to get our feet on the ground."

Conner Barkon, Hadas Kuznits, Antionette Lee, Nina Baratti and Kate Braunstein contributed to this report. This is a developing story and will be updated. Stay with KYW Newsradio for the latest.

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Hadas Kuznits/KYW Newsradio