Hope of finding loved ones alive fades as presumed last victims pulled from explosion rubble
WEST READING, Pa. - A deadly explosion rocks a chocolate factory in West Reading Friday night. Authorities said the explosion leveled Building 2 of the facility and caused damage to Building 1. Investigators are still working to determine what caused the blast. By Sunday evening, officials confirmed seven people died. Leaders noted they are waiting on the coroner’s office for official confirmation, but they went on to say all are presumed accounted for. Others were injured, but officials gave no details regarding their number or type of injuries or their conditions.
Crews worked frantically, searching for survivors in the rubble and loved ones are clung to the hope of survivors.
Frankie Gonzalez is hoping for a miracle that his sister, who started working at R.M. Palmer a few months ago, will be found alive.
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"She went to work yesterday and we ain’t heard from her since then," Gonzalez said. "They can’t have their cell phones on them. We would know something, just in case they’re buried in the rubble. We’ve been calling her cell phone, but got nothing back."
Like, Gonzalez, Rosaliz Morales and her sister have been watching search and rescue crews sift through the rubble for most of the day hoping their family friend, Judy, is found. "We’ve just been watching, but nothing, yet. My aunt was with her daughter at the hospital waiting to see if they would bring her, but they haven’t found her, so she’s one of the missing people."
Leann Kock says she got a frantic call from a relative, saying her father-in-law’s brother, who worked at the plant, is unaccounted for.
"She called me last night and said ‘I understand there was an explosion in West Reading?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know about it.’ And, she said, ‘Kevin works there,’ and I said, ‘I forgot about that.’ She said, ‘He works for Palmer and I’m pretty sure that’s his shift he was working on. And, nobody has heard from him. Nobody has heard from him, nobody, nobody!"
The tragic explosion at R.M. Palmer Company comes just a couple of weeks before Easter, a time of year when the company usually donates candy for the holiday and local leaders say their generosity over the years is not forgotten.
"Whether it’s donating candy for our Easter egg hunt and things like that, they have been an upstanding member of the community," VP of West Reading Borough Council, Phil Wert, said. "We did have to access our archives to pull the blueprints last night in order to get a better layout of the building and the mechanicals and the utilities."
According to Palmer’s website, it’s one of America’s largest confectioners with 850 employees who design, produce, package and ship hundreds of unique products all from West Reading, a company that local leaders say has been a significant community partner.
Dozens of search and rescue crews have been working around the clock including Mayor Samantha Kaag, a firefighter for the last six years with West Reading and, before that, in Shillington.
She was one of the first boots on the ground Friday night.
"Running down to see everybody on the streets, all of the residents are asking each other if they’re okay and it’s beautiful to see," Mayor Kaag said. "And, you get down and you see the tragedy and you kind off, obviously, get more inside details of just how bad the situations is."
Kaag has been mayor for just over a year and says her focus now will be to make sure her home community gets the support and resources it needs. "It’s a travesty. It’s tragic and we feel for them. We feel for the workers, we feel for the owners."
The company has set up a hotline to provide support for families. That number is 610-374-5224 extension 539. A recovery fund has been created by the Berks County Community Foundation and United Way to support those who have lost a loved one, been displaced from their home or employment, or are still waiting on word after the recent tragedy. To donate to the West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund, visit the BCCF website.