WEST READING, Pa. — Four people have died in a devastating explosion at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, officials have announced.
Police also said at a press conference Sunday morning that three people remain missing.
The explosion happened around 5:00 p.m. Friday at RM Palmer in West Reading.
Eyewitnesses reported that they heard an explosion from the confectionery factory, and soon saw flames.
Kristen Wisniewski lives three blocks from a local and famous chocolate company.
“It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” she said. “It literally felt like the ground was being torn out from under you. The whole house shook and my dogs froze, they couldn’t move, it was scary.”
The damage is significant. Officials say the RM Palmer Building #2 is destroyed and there is damage to the adjacent Palmer Building #1.
“It’s pretty flat, unfortunately there’s not much that can be salvaged,” said Mayor Samantha Kaag. “In the front, with the church and apartments, the explosion was so violent that it moved that building four feet forward.”
There is still no official information on the cause of this explosion, including whether it was caused by a gas leak.
A spokesman for UGI Utilities said crews were called in after damage from the explosion caused a gas release that helped fuel the four-alarm fire that broke out after the explosion.
“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 checking all of our nearby facilities,” UGI spokesman Joseph Swope said Saturday.
Family and friends of those who work at the factory are worried but remain hopeful. One family member spoke to Action News about his sister, who he said is still missing after the blast.
“My sister, she came to work and never came home,” Frankie Gonzalez said. “There are several other people who are missing, she is one of them. We hope she found a pocket to hide in, we’re not giving up hope.”
Gonzalez says his sister has a daughter, son and husband at home. He and his family say they will continue to pray as recovery efforts stretch into the night.
Officials say one person was found alive and pulled from the rubble overnight Saturday.
“One person was found alive overnight and rescuers are continuing to search for other possible survivors,” said Police Chief Wayne Holben. “The discovery of a life in one night gives hope that others may still be found.”
As Action News has learned, the surviving woman worked on the second floor of the factory. She was found in the basement somewhere between 2 and 3 in the morning
She was found when rescuers started shouting: “This is the fire station, is anyone there?”
The woman was taken to the hospital after spending about eight hours under the rubble. There is no word yet on her current condition and identity.
Rescuers continued a thorough search using special equipment and techniques. Officials said dogs and imaging equipment were being used to search for signs of life as the wreckage was carefully removed.
The names of the dead have not been released.
Tower Health said on Saturday that the Reading hospital received a total of 10 patients.
“Of those, one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital, one to St. Joseph’s Pennsylvania Medical Center, two were hospitalized and are in fair to good condition, and the rest have been discharged,” the health system said in a statement. .
When father and son first heard the explosion, they said they didn’t know what to think.
“I didn’t know, I just ran out and saw this mess. I think it was a gas explosion, what it sounded like,” said Harry Witmyer of Wyomissing. “It was very scary, the building was filled with smoke from the explosion.”
“At first I didn’t see any flames, just a bunch of tiles and materials falling from the sky. I knew it was an explosion,” Witmyer’s son Harry Witmyer Jr. said.
Kaag said people were asked to move about a block in each direction, but no evacuations were ordered. She declared a state of emergency only to give extra resources to emergency services. Borough Manager Dean Murray said some residents have been evicted from the damaged apartment building.
Philip Werth, vice-president of West Reading council, said the building was built in the late 1950s or early 1960s and officials had to “access our archive to get the blueprints last night to get a better layout of the building and mechanics, and utilities, where there are things.”
“The silver lining in all of this is that somebody was found alive, somebody was found alive, who was lying in the rubble not knowing if he was going to live or if he was going to die, and luckily we found that person and he has a second chance, and hopefully, fingers crossed, we’re going to find more,” he said.
RM Palmer released the following statement about the incident on Saturday afternoon:
“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 those affected. We are truly grateful for the extraordinary efforts of all first responders and for the support of our Reading community, which has been home to our business for over 70 years. We will continue to work closely with local and national agencies to assist in the recovery process.
We want to be in touch with all employees and families of employees who have been affected, but the company’s email, phone and other communication systems are down, so we are currently relying on emergency response and disaster recovery services to provide any available assistance. information for affected families. We will provide further information and contact staff, affected families and the community as soon as possible.”
RM Palmer also launched a hotline on Saturday for families and anyone in need of support. 610-374-5224 and extension 539.
Company website says it has been making “chocolate novelties” since 1948 and now employs 850 people at its West Reading headquarters.
Gov. Josh Shapiro and PEMA Director Randy Padfield visited the site Saturday. Shapiro pledged continued resources and support.
“Our hearts break for the families of those who have not returned home,” Shapiro said in a statement. “We are with you and my administration is here to provide all the resources and support the needs of West Reading.”
Others in the community such as volunteer groups in Berks County also pledged their support in helping those affected by the blast.
“I’ve never been more proud of Berks County, I’ve never been more proud of West Reading. We really came together as a family and a community,” Kaag noted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.