Seven people are now confirmed to have died following Friday afternoon’s explosion at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania which shook the foundations of a small town.
West Reading Borough chief of police Wayne Holben confirmed on Sunday evening the final two bodies they were searching for in the rubble at the RM Palmer plant, about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, had been found.
The remains of five others were found early on Sunday. The discovery of the sixth and seventh bodies has now brought the search to a close with no further victims thought to be in the wreckage.
‘We are still awaiting for the coroner to confirm the remaining individuals identities, but we do believe them to be the remaining presumptive missing individuals,’ Chief Holben said.
Mayor Samantha Kaag said the names of the identified victims would not be released until their families had been notified.
‘We will not be announcing any names of the identified victims until we know for certain that their family has been contacted, they have had time to process, and they have time to break the news to those close to them,” said Mayor Samantha Kaag.
A Pennsylvania mother-of-two Diana Cedeno, 45, who was the only woman among her six brothers, was working at the plant at the time of the blast, with no sign of her since.
‘Everybody’s waiting on her — six brothers. We need her back. She’s the mama hen of the group,’ brother Frank Gonzalez said to WGAL.
‘It’s not good. It’s just stressful waiting, not knowing,’ Gonzalez said.
‘We keep reaching out, bugging, keeping her name alive just in case she is in there and says her name.’
Diana Cedeno is among two people still missing following an explosion at a chocolate factory on Friday night. She was said to be working at the plant at the time of the blast
Cedeno’s brother, Frank Gonzalez has spent much of the weekend standing on a hill overlooking the blast site, watching the rubble being cleared
Gonzalez said his sister has two adult children, including a son who is deployed overseas.
She has a side job decorating for parties and has also been studying for ministry at her church, he said.
Gonzalez said his son and nephew had also worked at the plant, but that his son had quit a few months ago ‘because he said he didn´t like the smell of the gas that was in there.’
His son and nephew had complained about the smell to plant supervisors, who told them ‘It’s all right. We got it. It’s being handled. Don’t worry about it,’ he said.
On Sunday, a fifth person was confirmed dead while two other remained unaccounted for.
Holben asked for continued prayers from the community and vowed that rescuers and officials ‘will not rest until every single person affected by this tragedy has been accounted for’ from the blast that occurred just before 5pm on Friday.
Rescue crews have been using heat imaging equipment and dogs to search for possible survivors after the blast destroyed one building and damaged a neighboring building.
Crews are now using heavy equipment to methodically and carefully pull debris from the site, Holben said.
Rubble is cleared at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading
Emergency personnel and heavy equipment work at the site of the deadly explosion
Smoke rises from an explosion at the R.M. Palmer Co. plant in West Reading, on Friday
The blast destroyed one building and damaged a neighboring building. Roadways near the site will be closed until Monday at 8am, Holben said.
Borough fire chief Chad Moyer said on Saturday night that the chance of finding survivors was ‘decreasing rapidly’ due to the explosion’s force and the amount of time that had passed.
‘However, please be assured that our primary goal is accounting for all missing individuals and reuniting them with their loved ones,’ Moyer said.
Mayor Kaag said officials were ‘still hopeful to at least get some answers and get some recoveries so that people have that reassurance and that closure’.
‘We’re just trying to hold out as much hope as we can to get the right answers, to get quality answers, to get information to those that are affected and then let it go over to the investigation,’ Kaag said.
Bodies were found under debris at the RM Palmer plant in the borough of West Reading with rescue crews are using heat imaging equipment and dogs
Crews are now using heavy equipment to carefully pull debris from the site with roadways near the site closed until Monday at 8am
Rubble is cleared at the site of the deadly explosion at the chocolate factory
In this screen grab from video provided by WPVI-TV/6ABC, smoke rises from the explosion
‘It’s pretty leveled,’ Kaag said of the explosion site. ‘The building in the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward.’
Officials said they had no update on the condition of a woman pulled alive from the rubble early on Saturday.
Kaag said she had apparently been on the second floor and was found in a ‘hopeful circumstance’, calling out to rescuers despite her injuries after a dog located her.
Officials also reported no new updates on the conditions of those already taken to local area hospitals.
Reading Hospital said it had received 10 patients and transferred two to other facilities, while two others were admitted in good and fair conditions respectively and the others had been discharged.
A UGI Utilities spokesperson said crews were brought in after damage from the blast led to the release of gas that was helping to feed the fire.
‘We did not receive any calls regarding a gas leak or gas order prior to the incident. But we are cooperating with the investigation and part of that will be to check all our facilities in the vicinity,’ UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope said Saturday.
RM Palmer said in a statement on Saturday that everyone at the company was ‘devastated’ and it was reaching out to employees and their families through first responders and disaster recovery organizations because its communication systems were down.
‘We have lost close friends and colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all who have been impacted,’ the company said, expressing gratitude to the ‘extraordinary efforts’ of first responders and the support of the Reading community, ‘which has been home to our business for more than 70 years.’
A gas leak following the blast only served to fan the flames further
Flames could be seen shooting from the side of the building following the blast
State and local fire investigators were continuing to examine the scene to try to determine the cause of the blast
Emergency personnel work at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory on Friday
R.M. Palmer said it was anxious to get in touch with its employees and their families. But its email, phones and other communication systems were down, and it was relying on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide information to affected families.
The company said it would be ‘providing additional information and making contact with employees, impacted families, and the community as soon as possible.’
Kaag, a volunteer firefighter herself, said rescue crews had been working 12- to 16-hour shifts and were so dedicated to continuing the search that ‘you have to pull them away at this point’ to swap out and get some rest.
Kaag said people were asked to move back about a block in each direction, but no evacuations were ordered. She had issued an emergency declaration only to allow more resources for first responders.
Kaag also said some residents have reported damage to windows from the blast, and she asked people to ‘take a walk around your house’ and report any damage.
Governor Josh Shapiro, who visited the site Saturday along with the emergency management agency director, vowed ‘any and all commonwealth resources needed to support ongoing recovery efforts – in addition to the extensive assets that have already been deployed.’
A team of structural engineers and K-9s from a state urban search and rescue task force had been assisting since last night, and additional personnel arrived Saturday, he said. A state police fire marshal was also assisting in the investigation, he said.
Emergency personnel worked at the site of a deadly explosion on Friday evening
Dozens of fire crews were on site as they attempted to tackle the blaze
Roadways near the site are set to stay closed until Monday at 8am
State and local fire investigators were continuing to examine the scene to try to determine the cause of the blast.
Frank DeJesus said his stepdaughter, Arelis Rivera Santiago, a Palmer employee, was working in the building next door at the time of the blast. The ceiling caved, and she had to crawl under machinery to make it out, he said. DeJesus said he rushed to the scene to find her ‘shaking and crying hysterically,’ and she was still too shaken to speak about what had happened.
Plant employees, including his stepdaughter, had complained about smelling gas throughout the day Friday, DeJesus said.
‘Everyone complained about smelling gas, and they kept making them work,’ he said. ‘The supervisors told them it was nothing. It was being taken care of.’
Doug Olexy was home from work and checking email when the blast shook his house, rattling windows and making the walls vibrate.
‘It sounded like a bomb went off,’ he recalled Saturday. ‘I mean, all of our houses shook. I´ve never heard as loud of an explosion in my life.’
He and his neighbors ran out onto the street immediately afterward and were met by thick black smoke. At first, Olexy thought it was a train derailment because there are tracks nearby. Then he learned it was the Palmer plant, which he called a West Reading institution.
‘Everybody knows Palmer chocolate,’ he said.
R.M. Palmer’s website says it has been making chocolate novelties since 1948 and now has 850 employees at its West Reading headquarters. Its Facebook page includes entries earlier this month advertising Easter treats such as chocolate bunnies and ‘the newest milk chocolate hollow’ in its ‘bunny family’ as one with jelly beans inside. The company is by no means the region’s best-known chocolate manufacturer, however, with Hershey less than an hour to the west.
A GoFundMe has been set up to aid the victim’s families.
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