At least 2 people killed and 5 still missing in Pennsylvania chocolate factory explosion

Tribune Content Agency

WEST READING, Pa. — At least two people were killed and five people remain missing after an explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading on Friday afternoon sent a column of black smoke into the sky and blew out the windows of nearby homes, leaving some families in the small, tight-knit town still awaiting word on the fate of their relatives nearly 24 hours later.

On Saturday afternoon, Frankie Gonzalez stood atop a hill overlooking the site where his sister Diana Cedeno, 45, worked in packaging for more than a year. She has not yet been accounted for.

A cousin alerted Gonzalez to the explosion on Friday afternoon; he hasn’t slept since. As he waited for updates about his sister, whom he described as the family matriarch, Gonzalez fiddled with a pair of binoculars he bought to help see if Cedeno is carried out of the rubble.

“It’s stressful not knowing,” said Gonzalez. “You’re up against a wall.”

In addition to her six siblings, Cedeno’s father, husband, and two children are also waiting for her. Gonzalez said the family has been proactively communicating with authorities to remind them that their relative is still missing.

Elsewhere in the former industrial town, the beeping of trucks moving debris from the site of the blast permeated the air.

Officials have said it is not yet clear what caused the explosion at the R.M. Palmer Co., a major candy manufacturer that specializes in making hollow chocolate Easter bunnies. But on Saturday morning, West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben offered some hopeful news.

“During the overnight recovery efforts, one person was located alive and rescue workers continue to search for any other possible survivors,” Holben said, adding that the person was rescued from the rubble. The Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and other local organizations are also assisting with the recovery efforts, Holben said, moving debris and working with dogs at the site. Gov. Josh Shapiro visited the site of the explosion Saturday morning and met with local officials about the recovery needs.

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 from the factory, in a Facebook post Saturday morning. Photos Messner posted showed black and gray smoke filling the sky while bright orange flames licked the side of brick buildings.

Reading Hospital received a total of eight patients, according to a spokeswoman Saturday morning. Of those, one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital, two have been admitted in fair condition, and the others have been discharged.

As recovery efforts continued, town leaders had little information to share. The Rev. Vince Donnachie of Reading City Church said he did not yet know whether any of his parishioners were among the dead or missing. Some parishioners reported their windows being blown out after the blast. A congregational prayer at the beginning of Sunday’s service will focus on those impacted by the explosion, Donnachie said.

R.M. Palmer 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 in Wyomissing, 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. Less than a mile from the former knitting mills, R.M. Palmer 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.”