'RM Palmer is devastated': Death toll rises to seven in Pa. chocolate factory explosion as feds open investigation into cause
A Friday evening explosion leveled a chocolate factory in Reading, Pennsylvania.
The explosion killed seven people, sent 10 to the hospital, eight of which have already been released.
Officials said at a Saturday morning press conference that one person was found alive overnight.
A seventh person was found dead over the weekend, believed to be the last person hidden under the rubble after a mystery explosion Friday evening at a Pennsylvania chocolate factory, according to officials.
The blast just before 5 p.m. Friday leveled one building and damaged another at the R.M. Palmer chocolate factory in West Reading, Pennsylvania. It was caught on camera at several angles, including one from Fox 29 Philadelphia's weather camera.
Officials said Sunday that two more people were found dead under the rubble, bringing the death total to five, with two still unaccounted for. Sunday night, officials said that the final two people had been found dead in the rubble, bringing the likely final death toll to seven.
The cause of the explosion, which also moved a nearby building by its force, remains under investigation, officials said. Utility company UGI said it did not receive any calls about a gas leak prior to the explosion, but employees have allegedly complained to supervisors about a gas smell in the building, according to the Associated Press.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that it has opened an investigation into the explosion. The organization told the AP that initial information from local officials indicated a gas pipeline was likely involved, but said the agency will be investigating how and why the explosion happened.
Two of the victims have been identified publicly: Amy Sandoe, 49, and Domingo Cruz, 60, according to WPVI. The remaining victims have not been identified, as officials have said they are waiting to make sure their loved ones are notified first.
Crews used construction vehicles and several search strategies including dogs, drones, and thermal imaging technology to find potential survivors, officials said. Someone was found alive in the wreckage late Friday night, which provided optimism that others could be found during the weekend, West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben said Saturday.
West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag said Sunday that while they don't have an update on the individual's condition, initial reports indicate they were on the second floor at the time of the blast, and Holben said they were conscious when they were found by a rescue dog.
But fire chief Chad Moyer cautioned Saturday evening, that "due to the violence of the explosion and the amount of time that has passed, the chance of finding survivors is decreasing rapidly. However, please be assured that our primary goal is accounting for all missing individuals and reuniting them with their loved ones."
The company said in a statement posted to its official Facebook that it has "lost close friends and colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all who have been impacted."
"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," it said.
Frank DeJesus told the Associated Press that his stepdaughter was working in the factory building that was damaged but not destroyed, and had to crawl under machinery to get out after the ceiling caved in. He said by the time he made it to the scene, she was "shaking and crying hysterically," the AP reported.
Some residents in the immediate area were displaced, but no larger evacuations were ordered or are planned, as officials said there is no danger to those in the area, according to NBC 10 Philadelphia. Officials also advised residents to stay at least one block away from the explosion to allow emergency workers access.
The company statement said its email, phone, and other communications systems are down. "We are relying currently on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide any available information to impacted families. We will be providing additional information and making contact with employees, impacted families, and the community as soon as possible."
Palmer established a grief counseling program for employees, and counseling phone and email hotlines for anyone needing support.
Kaag said Sunday at the press conference that her office received a call from the White House Saturday offering condolences and assuring the community that resources would be available to them if they need federal government assistance.
She issued a declaration of emergency late Friday to allow the quick gathering and use of resources to assist in the cleanup. The declaration does not mean any residents are in immediate danger, she said.
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro visited West Reading Saturday afternoon, and said his administration is here to provide "all the resources and support West Reading needs" as it recovers.
—Governor Josh Shapiro (@GovernorShapiro) March 25, 2023
A Reading Hospital spokesperson told Insider via email Saturday that the hospital dispatched six ambulances to the factory and treated eight people from the blast Friday night. Later reports increased that number to ten people hospitalized, with one patient being transferred to another facility and another treated and released, according to WPVI.
—FOX 29 (@FOX29philly) March 24, 2023
The chocolate company has been a part of West Reading for decades since it was started by Richard M. Palmer in 1948. The factory buildings damaged by the explosion were built in the 1950s and '60s, and the company employs about 850 employees and offers over 500 different products throughout the year, including dozens that are Easter and Halloween themed, according to a 2018 update on its website.
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