With blast's death toll at 7, SAR operations conclude at Pa. chocolate factory
Efforts by FDs, EMS agencies, police departments, and the state's search and rescue task moved from heat-imaging devices and drones to heavy machinery
By Ximena Conde
The Philadelphia Inquirer
WEST READING, Pa. — Almost 48 hours after an explosion at the R.M. Palmer chocolate factory in Berks County, all Frankie Gonzalez and his family could do on Sunday was pray.
Pray that his sister Diana Cedeno, one of the people still missing Sunday morning, was found in the wreckage. Pray that the families of those confirmed dead could find some solace. Pray for those who survived.
Congregants at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Parish at the edge of West Reading echoed Gonzalez's prayers.
" West Reading is a small town and everyone is wondering what they could do to help," Natalie Parisi, 55, said after the service.
By Sunday night, the hope for survivors came to an end, the death toll having risen to seven. The final bodies pulled from the debris were believed to be unaccounted for workers, according to authorities.
"This is still a devastating loss," Mayor Samantha Kaag said Sunday night in front of a handmade "Palmers Strong" sign, "but we are truly grateful to be able to account for all presumptive missing and bring closure to families involved in the upcoming days."
The identities of the final bodies still need to be confirmed. Kaag said the names of identified victims would not be released until it was clear that their families had been notified.
Officials announced the creation of the West Reading Disaster Relief Fund on Sunday. The Berks County Community Foundation and the United Way of Berks County will help distribute the funds to organizations assisting families who lost loved ones in the explosion or those who lost work as a result of the blast. Any remaining funds will go to honoring those who died, said Tammy White with United Way of Berks County.
"People want to help, they want to provide contributions," said White, adding that donations could be made online or by mailing them to the Berks County Community Foundation ( 237 Court St., Reading, Pa. 19601).
The devastating news capped another day of dedicated searching. Rescue workers from local fire departments, EMS agencies, police departments, and the state's search and rescue task force continued to unearth debris at the explosion site. Kaag said rescue workers had to be pulled from their 12- and 16-hour shifts, with many desperate to keep going, aware that they were racing the clock.
Citing the "violence of the explosion," West Reading Fire Chief Chad Moyer said Saturday that the chances of finding survivors would diminish as time progressed.
Rescue teams tweaked their search methods as time passed, moving from heat-imaging devices and drones to heavy machinery to methodically remove debris Sunday.
As the hours passed, families grew increasingly desolate. Gonzalez spent Saturday afternoon atop a hillside where he could see rescue teams at work. He fiddled with a pair of binoculars he'd bought in hopes of catching a glimpse of his sister. She worked in packaging at the factory and hadn't been heard from since Friday. He returned to the hillside Sunday, and saw a body bag removed from the scene but was unclear whether it was his sister.
Another man sought the mayor at West Reading Borough Hall on Saturday night, begging for an update. Kaag consoled him, offered her cell phone number, but had nothing new to report at the time.
"We've had people reaching out; unfortunately, at this point, we just haven't had information to give," Kaag, a volunteer firefighter, said Sunday morning.
West Reading had command centers set up to deliver any information to families when it became available, she said, with in-person meetings with families of the deceased held Sunday.
With West Reading about 0.6 of a square mile and a population of about 4,500 people, the town can't help but be tight-knit, residents said. The town is small enough that most people know either someone who lived near the blast or someone who worked at the company, which was founded in 1948.
According to Palmer's website, the company employs 850 people in its facilities. Palmer's chocolate eggs, miniature peanut butter cups, and Yoo-hoo mini bars are offered at such major stores as CVS and Walmart. Palmer operated two buildings at the explosion site. One was completely destroyed in the blast. A building next to the Palmer factory had apartments. Local authorities said the apartments sustained some damage but were otherwise structurally sound.
As of Sunday morning, local authorities still could not say how many employees were working at Palmer at the time of the explosion. But West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben said they were certain no passersby were unaccounted for.
The status of survivors was also not entirely clear Sunday. Eight people were taken to Reading Hospital after the blast, according to a spokesperson. Of those, one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital, two have been admitted in fair condition, and the others have been discharged. A search dog helped locate a survivor in the rubble overnight Friday. That person's condition was not immediately known.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency initially said that gas was a possible cause of the explosion, although Kaag said was too early to say.
As the Pennsylvania State Police continue to investigate, three buildings near the explosion will be closed down for the time being. Kaag said they aren't uninhabitable but need to be examined by structural engineers before being released.
Palmer had initially said that it was trying to reach employees and members of their families but that all forms of communication were out of commission.
"Our focus remains supporting our employees and their families and our thoughts and prayers are with all those impacted," said a Palmer statement Sunday, which was read by the mayor.
Palmer has set up a family support line at 610-374-5224, Ext. 539.
A candlelight vigil is planned for Friday at 7:30 p.m. where Reading and West Reading connect.
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