2 off-duty Western Berks medics cited for valor in rushing to West Reading chocolate factory explosion

May 26—Two Western Berks Ambulance responders who were the first medics on the scene of the R.M. Palmer Co. chocolate factory explosion in West Reading have been awarded distinguished service medals for valor.

Paramedic Jacob A. Motacki had just left work on March 24 when the explosion happened and was at the factory within about 20 seconds in his personal vehicle, Western Berks Ambulance CEO and Chief Anthony Tucci said.

Motacki was presented with multiple patients across a large area in an unstable scene with hardly any gear, yet he remained calm and started the initial care of patients until help arrived, Tucci said. The blast, which investigators have linked to natural gas, leveled one of the company's South Second Avenue buildings, killing seven workers.

Emergency Medical Technician James A. Beane was sitting in his West Reading home waiting to leave for his shift when the explosion rocked the borough just before 5 p.m. He responded directly to the Palmer site and did what needed to be done, Tucci said.

Tucci and Deputy Chief Carrie Frey presented the medals to both men in a brief ceremony at the West Lawn station, which is the service's headquarters, as part of a cookout in observance of EMS Week. The men also received a certificate of valor.

First authorized by President Gerald Ford in 1974, EMS Week is presented by the American College of Emergency Physicians in partnership with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians to honor the dedication of those who provide the day-to-day lifesaving services of medicine's frontline.

The nonprofit ambulance company also presented a certificate of commendation to six other medics for their initial response and transport of the injured from the scene of the West Reading tragedy: Jesse Magill, Phil Banks, Derek Kauffman, John Scheirer, Sean Haag, Troy Miner, Mike Roth and Kim Brown.

"But this today is not solely about the individuals," Tucci said. "It is about celebrating the collective strength and synergy of the EMS community as a whole. Collaboration among emergency medical technicians, paramedics, physicians, nurses and other health care professionals is crucial to the success of our endeavors.

"Together we form an intricate web of support, each thread vital to the fabric of emergency medical services."

The 21 other medics who were also on the scene in the hours after the blast received a certificate of recognition and a unit-bar that is pinned above their badge.

Departing slightly from his prepared remarks, Tucci told the group: "This was an incident we never had before. You guys all shined. You did outstanding."

Tucci said the awards are a small token of appreciation for the dedication the men and women have to a field that is struggling to attract and keep personnel. On top of staffing shortages, independent ambulance companies that provide 911 service are struggling to stay afloat because the funding they receive from governments and insurance reimbursements doesn't cover operating costs.

"It's not just a state crisis, it's a country crisis," he said.

Last year, he said, Pennsylvania EMS providers lost a fifth of their combined workforce, and 63% of those who left the field were younger than 40.

He said emergency medical services involve night shifts and weekends and being ready to respond to a call at a moment's notice. As such, it's more of a calling, one in which he and his colleagues hope more will hear.

Tucci praised his team for their resilience.

"The past year, in particular, has tested us in many ways," he said. "The global pandemic challenged us to navigate uncharted territories, risking your own health and safety to ensure the well-being of others. You displayed unwavering courage, compassion and dedication, proving that even in the darkest of times, the light of hope can shine through."

Banks, a 32-year veteran of the ambulance company, and his partner, Sean Haag, can certainly speak to that. They were in the back of the ambulance when a woman was pulled from the rubble seven hours after the explosion. She was found by a search and rescue team after a dog signaled her presence.

He said that emotionally it was a high point of a marathon day when the rescue team discovered the survivor so many hours later as hope had faded.

He wasn't sure what type of injuries the patient suffered before she was placed in the ambulance. He was prepared for the worst.

"When she came in and started talking to us it was a big relief because we know then that she has an open airway," Banks said.

As the hours went by without more survivors being found, however, his jubilation faded.