PHILADELPHIA — At least two people were killed and five people remain missing after an explosion at a West Reading chocolate factory Friday afternoon that sent a column of black smoke into the sky and rattled the windows of homes four blocks away.
It’s not clear what caused the explosion, said L. Paul Vezzetti, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which was notified of the explosion around 5 p.m. Friday and is assisting with the aftermath. The company, R.M. Palmer, specializes in hollow chocolate Easter bunnies; the explosion occurred just two weeks before Easter.
While Vezzetti told The Inquirer Saturday morning that five people had died in the explosion and six were still missing, local officials disputed those numbers in a morning news conference, saying that they could confirm only that two people had died and five were still missing.
“During the overnight recovery efforts, one person was located alive and rescue workers continue to search for any other possible survivors,” West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben said, adding that the person was rescued from the rubble. The Pennsylvania State Police, PEMA and other local agencies are also assisting with the recovery efforts, Holben said, moving debris and working with dogs at the site.
Local residents described a harrowing scene on Friday evening.
“I was sitting by the window I heard a powerful explosion, felt a puff of air touch the back of my neck, the windows rattled and blinds shook,” wrote Jayson Messner, who said he lives approximately four blocks away from the factory, in a Facebook post on Saturday morning. Photos Messner posted show black and gray smoke filling the sky, bright orange flames, and an enormous mound of rubble and debris surrounded by brick buildings still standing.
Reading Hospital received a total of eight patients, according to a spokeswoman for the hospital on Saturday morning. Of those, one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital, two have been admitted in fair condition, and the others have been discharged.
R.M. Palmer Co. is one of the largest candymakers in the country. Evan Prochniak, CEO of Philadelphia-based candy manufacturer Zitner’s, guessed that because of its large scale, R.M. Palmer had likely wrapped up production of its Easter candies in mid-February and was in a slower phase of production when the explosion occurred.
“It’s a good company with good products and good people. They’re just really, really nice people that are leaders in the industry,” said Prochniak, who has met representatives from R.M. Palmer at national candy conventions.
West Reading, a small town about 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was once next door to the Berkshire Knitting Mills, which was the largest stockings and hosiery manufacturer in the world in the early 20th century. These days, about 20% of the population works in health care and related fields. Politically, the area is a blue dot in a sea of red. R.M. Palmer, less than a mile from the former knitting mills, was founded in 1948 and employs 850 people, according to its website.
“I’m asking for continued cooperation from the public to avoid the area,” Mayor Samantha Kaag wrote in a statement posted to Facebook. “Our deepest sympathies are with the family and friends of those who have been affected.”