Death toll from explosion at Pennsylvania chocolate factory climbs to seven

The death toll from an explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pennsylvania, has now climbed to seven, after rescuers pulled two more bodies from the rubble on Sunday.

West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben confirmed at a press conference on Sunday evening that the search for two people still missing after Friday’s blast at the RM Palmer Co plant in Berks County had ended tragically.

The two bodies were discovered sometime late on Sunday and are believed to be the two people who were unaccounted for.

The search was subsequently called off at the plant.

Officials have not released the identities of the victims – or their connection to the plant – however Diana Cedeno had been previously identified by her family as one of the two missing.

Her cousin Danny Wyatt told WPVI that “she’s a God-fearing woman. She’s beautiful, she’s a great person”.

He added that she had just started her shift when the blast occurred.

“We’re holding onto faith and hope. It just gets more antagonizing as time goes on,” he said prior to Sunday’s tragic discovery.

Frankie Gonzalez previously told WPVI that his sister was also among the missing.

“She came to work and she never made it home,” he said. “There’s still a couple people that are unaccounted for, she’s one of them. We’re hoping she found a pocket she could hide in, we won’t give up our hope.”

The brother said she has a husband, a son, and a daughter.

Earlier in the day, Chief Holben had insisted authorities “will not rest until every single person affected by this tragedy has been accounted for”.

Heat-imaging gear and dogs were used in the search as well as heavier equipment used to carefully remove debris from the area.

In total, seven people died as a result of the explosion which took place just before 5pm on Friday in the small town located about 60 miles from Philadelphia.

One person was found alive during the search efforts and 10 were taken to a local hospital for treatment.

Witnesses say they heard a loud blast, followed by a blaze.

Kristen Wisniewski, who lives three blocks away from the factory, told WPVI that “it was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life”.

“It literally felt like the ground fell out from underneath you. The whole house shook and my dogs froze, they couldn’t move, it was scary,” she added.

Rubble is cleared at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pa., Saturday, March 25, 2023 (AP)
Rubble is cleared at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pa., Saturday, March 25, 2023 (AP)

Officials have said that one of the RM Palmer buildings has been destroyed while another has been damaged.

Mayor Samantha Kaag said, “it’s pretty leveled, unfortunately there’s not too much to be able to salvage from it”.

“In the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward,” she added, according to WPVI.

The cause of the blast has not yet been determined.

A UGI Utilities spokesperson said crews were called to the scene after damage from the explosion lead to gas being released, which spurred on the fire that followed the blast.

“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,” spokesperson Joseph Swope said on Saturday.

The survivor who was pulled out of the rubble overnight on Saturday was a woman who worked on the second floor of the balcony. She was found by rescue crews in the basement between 2am and 3am.

She was found when crews yelled, “this is the fire department, is anyone there?”

The unnamed woman spent eight hours in the debris and was taken to a hospital following her rescue. Her condition remains unclear.

Tower Health said on Saturday that Reading Hospital had taken in ten people from the factory blast.

“Of those, one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital, one to Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center, two have been admitted and are in good and fair condition, and the others have been discharged,” they said in a statement.

Garry Witmoyer heard the explosion.

“I didn’t know, I just come running out and saw that mess over there. I think it was a gas explosion the way it sounded,” he told WPVI. “It was very scary, the building filled with smoke from just the explosion.”

“I didn’t see flames at first, just a bunch of shingles and materials falling from the sky. I knew it was an explosion,” his son Garry Witmoyer Jr added.

Emergency personnel work at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pa., Saturday, March 25, 2023 (AP)
Emergency personnel work at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pa., Saturday, March 25, 2023 (AP)

RM Palmer Company said in a statement on Saturday night that “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”.

“We have lost close friends and colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all who have been impacted,” they added. “We are sincerely grateful for the extraordinary efforts of all of the first responders and for the support of our Reading community, which has been home to our business for more than 70 years. We will continue to coordinate closely with local and national agencies to assist in the recovery process.”

“We are anxious to be in touch with all employees and the families of employees who have been impacted, but the company’s email, phones, and other communication systems are down, and therefore we are relying currently on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide any available information to impacted families,” the company said. “We will be providing additional information and making contact with employees, impacted families, and the community as soon as possible.”

Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro and the director of the state’s Emergency Management Agency, Randy Padfield, visited the town on Saturday.

“Our hearts break for the families of those who didn’t come home,” Mr Shapiro said in a statement, according to WPVI. “We are with you - and my Administration is here to provide all the resources and support West Reading needs.”