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

Tribune Content Agency

WEST READING, Pa. — Frankie Gonzalez stood atop a hill overlooking the burned-out wreckage of the R.M. Palmer chocolate factory in West Reading on Saturday afternoon, fiddling with a pair of binoculars and hoping for a glimpse of his sister, as the beeping of rescue workers’ trucks permeated the air.

A powerful explosion tore through the factory in this small Berks County town late Friday, sending a column of black smoke into the sky and killing at least two people. Five others remained missing as of Saturday evening, including Diana Cedeno, Gonzalez’s sister and the family matriarch. She had worked for more than a year in packaging at R.M. Palmer, one of the largest candy manufacturers in the country.

Gonzalez learned of the explosion from his cousin right after it happened. He has not slept since. Instead, he purchased a pair of binoculars, in the hopes he could see his sister carried out from the rubble. And he waited for news, along with Cedeno’s six siblings, her father, her husband and her two children.

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

“Everyone at R.M. Palmer is devastated,” the company said in a statement. It said it was trying to reach employees and members of their families but that all forms of communications were out of commission.

The cause of the explosion remained under investigation Saturday night. The factory in West Reading, a town of 4,500 about 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is known for making hollow chocolate Easter bunnies. Because of its large scale, R.M. Palmer had probably wrapped up production of its Easter candies in mid-February and was in a slower phase of production when the explosion occurred, said Evan Prochniak, the CEO of Philadelphia-based candy manufacturer Zitner’s.

The hill where Gonzalez stood drew worried neighbors throughout Saturday. Ryan Noll, 27, said the Friday blast shook his home about four blocks away from the factory. He came to the top of the hill to see if more people had been pulled from the rubble, watching in silence as rescue workers continued to fan out in the damp evening.

Noll and other neighbors said that while the local chocolate manufacturer might not command the national recognition that nearby Hershey does, it is a revered institution in West Reading.

“Everywhere you go, there’s Palmer,” Noll said.

Peg Wrede, 70, a former Palmer factory worker who retired in 2005, described the chocolate maker as a reliable employer where people like her could work for decades. She recalled the sweet smell that flooded the halls of the building and how workers turned batches of chocolate into thousands of finished candies.

“They were real crisp, the bunnies’ ears cracked when you bit them off,” Wrede remembered.

Despite the uncertainty and fear shrouding West Reading, the town’s police chief, Wayne Holben, said that one person was located alive and pulled from the rubble during the Friday overnight recovery efforts.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro visited the site of the explosion Saturday morning and met with local officials about recovery needs. The Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency are also assisting with the search and rescue efforts, Holben said, removing debris and working with dogs at the site. PEMA said on Saturday morning that five people had been killed in the explosion, but Holben and West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag disputed that number, which later was revised.

Eight patients were taken to Reading Hospital, according to a spokeswoman. 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 and residents prayed for good news. 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. A congregational prayer at the beginning of Sunday’s service will focus on those impacted by the explosion, Donnachie said.

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. Its chocolate eggs, miniature peanut butter cups and Yoohoo mini bars are on offer at major stores like CVS and Walmart.

Local residents described a harrowing scene on Friday evening. Some of Donnachie’s parishioners reported their windows being blown out after the blast.

“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 on Saturday morning. Messner posted photos he had taken showing black and gray smoke filling the sky, while bright orange flames licked the side of brick buildings.