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In the midst of unimaginable tragedy, a glimmer of hope sprang forth in the early morning hours Saturday.
Rescue workers sifting through the rubble that just hours before was a West Reading chocolate factory found a survivor of the blast.
“The discovery provides hope that others may still be found,” West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben said during a press conference at borough hall late Saturday morning.
Hoben could not provide any further information about the survivor or their condition.
As Hoben, West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag and other officials spoke to members of the media just after 10:30 a.m., efforts to repeat the hopeful discovery from earlier in the morning continued. Crews working in shifts worked methodically to remove debris left by the blast that rocked the borough Friday evening.
The explosion at R.M. Palmer Co. plant on South Second Avenue, which happened just before 5 p.m., killed two people, injured nine others and has left five people missing, officials said Saturday morning.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency earlier Saturday had said that five had been killed and six were missing, according to The Associated Press, but West Reading officials said during a press conference Saturday morning that that information was not accurate.
No information is available on the identities of the victims.
A press conference was held this morning with West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben, Mayor Samantha Kaag and other officials.
Eight people injured in the explosion were taken to Reading Hospital Friday evening, one of whom was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital, Tower Health spokeswoman Jessica Bezler said.
Two of the patients at Reading were admitted in fair condition and five were treated and released, she said. The condition of the patient who was transferred was unavailable.
The cause of the blast is under investigation, Holden said. Kaag added that that investigation will be an “all weekend” thing and likely extend even longer.
Kaag said the number of people displaced by the blast, which violently shook nearby buildings, is unclear. Resources are being made available for those who were forced from their homes.
Holben said engineers were on scene Saturday morning checking the stability of buildings in the area and making sure that the situation remained safe for rescue workers.
Kaag said rescue efforts are being aided by Palmer officials, who were able to provide information on who was likely in the building at the time of the explosion. Trying to account for those still deemed missing is an ongoing, urgent task, she added.
“I know it must be frustrating for their families,” she said. “I can’t imagine that feeling.”
To aid in search and rescue efforts, Kaag said, the borough has declared a state of emergency. She stressed that residents should not interpret that declaration as a reason to be afraid or unsafe, simply saying it will allow West Reading to gain access to more resources.
Speaking at Saturday morning’s press conference, West Reading Borough Council vice president Phil Wert described the blast as “beyond tragic.” But, he added, the discovery of a survivor is a silver lining.
“Someone was found alive in the rubble, not knowing if they were going to live or die,” he said. “And they have a second chance now.”
Kaag added that she has been overwhelmed by the support the borough has received, saying offers for help have been pouring in continuously.
“I’ve never been more proud of Berks County,” she said. “I’ve never been more proud of West Reading.”
UGI Utilities Inc. responded to the scene Friday night to help firefighters by cutting off natural gas to the neighborhood, company spokesman Joe Swope said. About 40 customers were disconnected, most of whom have now been restored.
UGI is assisting with the investigation into the cause of the explosion, he said.
“We’re trying to figure out what happened,” he said.
The explosion sent a large plume of black smoke into the air. It knocked down Building No. 2 at the plant at 55 S. Second Ave., and damaged Building No. 1 at 77 S. Second Ave., Holben said. It also damaged a neighboring building that included apartments.
Footage from a nearby weather camera from Philadelphia TV station Fox 29 showed the force of the blast, which sent building debris high into the air.
“It’s pretty leveled,” West Reading Borough Mayor Samantha Kaag said of the explosion site. “The building in the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward.”
Kaag said people were asked to move back about a block in each direction from the site of the explosion but no evacuations were ordered.
Dean Murray, the borough manager of West Reading Borough, said some residents were displaced from the damaged apartment building.
The blast and resulting fire resulted in a massive response to the scene by fire, EMS and police from around the region.
Debris covered roads in the area and led to street closures.
Kaag, who is also a firefighter, was on the scene shortly after the blast. She said she hasn’t seen anything like it before.
“We’re so very grateful for the tireless efforts of the agencies that showed up to put the work and hours in and those that are still out there helping out,” Kaag said at the news conference. “We hope our community can continue to come together and send thoughts and prayers to those involved in this tragedy.”
Kaag praised the quick response by first responders.
“A lot of the community came together — it was a lot of different companies that were there, a lot of different officers, our neighbors, the Reading police department and all of the firefighters that came together,” Kaag said. “It was a lot of people that knew what they were doing and they were getting their hands in there and they were getting it taken care of and handled. It was surprising how fast the response time was.”
There is no immediate danger to the surrounding area, Holben said, but residents are asked to avoid the blast scene.
After the explosion, Reading Hospital immediately mobilized to receive and care for any casualties, and six TowerDIRECT ambulances, including a mass casualty Incident vehicle with accompanying staff were dispatched to provide medical direction, patient care, and transport to the hospital, Bezler said.
The RM Palmer company has been a mainstay of West Reading and Berks County for 75 years. It was founded in 1948 by Richard M. Palmer Sr., who secured a $25,000 investment to purchase some used equipment and an old warehouse in Sinking Spring.
Today the company has three facilities, more than 800 employees and makes more than 1,000 different items that are distributed around the world. It is considered one of the top 75 confectioners in the world and is one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the U.S.
Berks County officials released a statement extending sympathy and support to those affected.
“While our community is still grappling with the sobering reality of this incident, we have been encouraged by how quickly our residents have rallied together to surround West Reading with support,” it said.
“We would like to thank and recognize our emergency personnel at the local, county and state levels, especially those who mobilized from outside of Berks County to assist. The county of Berks is committed to support our community in any way we can during this time of tragedy.”
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