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Seven confirmed dead in West Reading chocolate factory explosion, recovery efforts conclude

West Reading Chocolate Factory Explosion
Julian Abraham
Bystanders gathered at the site of the R.M. Palmer Co. explosion, including chaplains with Embassy of United Chaplains there to provide prayer support.

WEST READING, Pa. — Seven people are dead in the wake of a West Reading chocolate factory explosion on Friday. Two additional fatalities were confirmed by West Reading officials in a news conference Sunday evening.

  • Seven people are confirmed dead following an explosion at a West Reading chocolate factory on Friday
  • Two individuals who were presumed missing were located by search and rescue teams Sunday evening and did not survive the explosion
  • A candlelight vigil is being planned for Friday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. for the West Reading and Reading communities

Rescue workers spent much of the day searching for two missing people, but none were found alive, according to Borough Police Chief Wayne Holben.

"This evening two search and rescue teams have located two more individuals at the R.M. Palmer site," Holben said. "We are still waiting for the coroner to confirm the remaining individuals' identities, but we do believe them to be the remaining presumptive missing individuals."

Holben said the recovery effort is now shifting to an investigation into the cause of the explosion.

The blast occurred around 5 p.m. Friday at the R.M. Palmer Company. Witnesses saw flames shortly after hearing an explosion from the candy factory.

There was no update on hospitalized victims at the evening news conference. The cause of the explosion remains undetermined, according to Holben.

Mayor Samantha Kaag said that the names of the victims will not be released until family members have been notified.

"We're still working with the families to get them information as we move forward," she said. "But this is the site itself now is being moved over into the investigation, period. So hopefully we will have more answers on what caused this and how it happened and how it can be prevented in the future."

Earlier in the day, she asked family members of the missing people and victims to contact the mayor directly for support and comfort resources. And she said the city can help neighbors to take a look around their houses and see if anything is damaged.

“We really truly do take this as seriously as we can,” she said, tearing up.

Kaag said three buildings will be condemned around the site of the blast as the investigation continues: C&S Supply, Palmer Building #1 and the apartment building and church at the corner of Penn Ave. and South 2nd Ave.

The R.M. Palmer Company's current communication systems are not in operation, according to its website. It’s relying on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide information to families and the public.

Community response

Reading Mayor Eddie Moran joined West Reading officials Sunday evening to express support for the people of both municipalities impacted by the explosion. He also announced a candlelight vigil to be held on Friday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m.

"[We will] unify both the West Reading and Reading community in the middle of the bridge to have a moment of silence and a moment of prayer for all those who have been affected by this incident," Moran said.

United Way of Berks County is working with Berks County Community Foundation on the West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund. Donations can be made here and will be used to support members of the community affected by the factory blast.

According to the community foundation website, funds will go to “the families of individuals killed in the explosion, individuals displaced from their homes as a result of the explosion, individuals displaced from employment as a result of the explosion and the Borough of West Reading for planning and/or implementation of historical commemoration of the explosion.”

“What we learned, which was no surprise, was that people want to help,” United Way of Berks County President Tammy White said in the press conference earlier in the day.

Members of the Reading City Council and Mayor Kaag also expressed their gratitude to the first responders.

“I cannot put into words how much support West Reading has received in the last 24 hours,” Councilmember Ryan Lineweaver said.