2 more victims found dead following chocolate factory explosion; 7 people killed

In total, the explosion has claimed the lives of seven people. Their names have not been released at this time.

Monday, March 27, 2023
2 more victims found dead following chocolate factory explosion; 7 people killed
2 more victims found dead following chocolate factory explosion; 7 people killed

WEST READING, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Officials say two more people have been found dead following the devastating explosion at the R.M. Palmer Company in West Reading, Pennsylvania.

The two victims are believed to be the two people who were previously unaccounted for, officials said during a briefing Sunday night.

In total, the explosion has claimed the lives of seven people. Their names have not been released at this time.

During a briefing on March 26, 2023, officials confirmed two more bodies were found at the site of a West Reading chocolate factory explosion. The death toll stands at seven.

The incident happened at approximately 5 p.m. Friday evening. Witnesses reported hearing an explosion coming from the candy factory, then saw flames shortly after.

Kristen Wisniewski lives three blocks from the local and well-known chocolate company.

"It was the loudest thing I've ever heard in my life," she said. "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."

Rescue crews spent the next two days using heat imaging equipment and dogs to search for possible survivors after the blast destroyed one building and damaged a neighboring building.


Survivor pulled from rubble of chocolate factory explosion in West Reading

Officials say one person was found alive and pulled from the rubble overnight Saturday.

"During the overnight hours one person was located alive and rescue workers continue to search for any other possible survivors," Chief of Police Wayne Holben stated on Saturday.

Action News has learned the survivor is a woman who worked on the second floor of the factory. She was found in the basement sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.

She was found when rescuers began yelling, "This is the fire department, is anyone there?"

The woman was taken to the hospital after spending approximately eight hours in the rubble. There is no word yet on her current condition or her identity.


The damage in West Reading is extensive. Officials say RM Palmer Building #2 is destroyed and there's damage at the neighboring Palmer Building #1.

"It's pretty leveled, unfortunately, there's not too much to be able to salvage from it," said West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag. "In the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward."

There has been no official word on the cause of this blast, including whether it was caused by a gas leak.

A spokesperson for UGI Utilities said crews were brought in after damage from the blast led to the release of gas that was helping to feed the four-alarm fire that erupted 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 to check all our facilities in the vicinity," UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope said Saturday.

Philip Wert, vice president of the West Reading council, said the building had been constructed in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and officials had to "access our archive to pull the blueprints last night, in order to get a better layout of the building and the mechanicals and the utilities, where things are."


West Reading bands together in wake of chocolate factory explosion

Many in the community, such as volunteer groups in Berks County, have also pledged their support in helping those impacted by the explosion.

"I've never been more proud of Berks County, I've never been more proud of West Reading. We really did come together as a family and a community," noted Kaag.

Nonprofit groups in Berks County raised over $24,000, which will be donated to victims, their families, and others in the community impacted by the explosion.

The White House and other state and local agencies have extended a hand to the Berks County community during this difficult time.

While the remaining two individuals have recovered, people are still grieving from this devastation.

"My mom got out one hour and 57 mins before this happened," said Jerenys Deleon, from Reading.

Deleon's mother worked for R.M. Palmer for nearly 16 years. She was able to come home on Friday. Now, they're praying for those who did not.

Dozens of employees and family members gathered outside of the American Diner in West Reading on Sunday to show their support. They then marched down Penn Avenue together in solidarity.

"We just don't have no words for it, we don't know what to say. Our hearts go out to the families," said Sylvia Skinner, an employee at R.M. Palmer.

Employees and family members of R.M. Palmer are devastated. Pain aside, they are also looking for answers.

"I want Palmer to give us answers of what happened. I want them to help us," said Deleon.


Mayor Kaag says South 2nd Avenue between Franklin Street and Penn Avenue will remain closed indefinitely as the investigation continues.

Several buildings near the blast site will be condemned until they can be inspected and deemed safe.

"There will be three buildings condemned around the current site, which is just a precaution as we move into the investigation phase to figure out what caused this and how we can prevent anything from happening like this in the future," said Kaag. "This doesn't mean they are slated for demolition or uninhabitable -- simply that there will still be work happening around them as we proceed, and we'll need to look at further by structural engineers before being released."


Mayor Kaag posted the following Tweet Sunday night, commending the strength of the community and noting how devastating the loss is:

R.M. Palmer Company released the following statement on the incident 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 who have been impacted. 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. We will be providing additional information and making contact with employees, impacted families, and the community as soon as possible."

R.M. Palmer also released a crisis hotline on Saturday for families and anyone who needs support. The number is 610-374-5224 and the extension is 539.

The company's website says it has been making "chocolate novelties" since 1948 and now has 850 employees at its West Reading headquarters.

Governor Josh Shapiro and PEMA Director Randy Padfield visited the site on Saturday. Shapiro pledged ongoing resources and support.

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