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When the R.M. Palmer Co. factory exploded Friday evening in West Reading, the force was so strong that it swayed homes in the neighborhood and buckled the knees of Victor Marrero, who was blocks from the plant in his aunt’s home.
He went running down Kline Avenue and then South Second Avenue to reach the scene, even though he was without a shirt or shoes and wearing only pajama pants.
“He said he didn’t think, he just wanted to help,” said his aunt Angela Bohn.
When he arrived he saw injured workers crawling over the rubble to escape, she said.
Police arrived and told him to move away from the scene for his own safety.
Officials said that as of Saturday afternoon two were killed, nine were injured and five were left missing by the explosion, which occurred at about 5 p.m.
The cause is still under investigation.
Several plant employees were at the scene Saturday afternoon hoping for good news about co-workers still missing.
Palmer company officials were unavailable for comment, but workers said those who were inside when the explosion occurred have been offered counseling services.
A first-shift employee at the site on Saturday said he finished work two hours before the blast but had worked second shift for years and knew several of those missing. He came hoping he could volunteer in the attempted recovery efforts.
“I want to help,” he said. “It’s so sad.”
The scene was taped off, but a large piece of construction equipment could be seen removing large pieces of building debris from the rubble pile while emergency workers watched.
Bohn wasn’t home when the explosion occurred but said her front door security camera caught the moment.
“You can see the whole neighborhood shake,” she said.
Nicole Hanson was getting ready to hop in the shower just before 5 p.m. Friday when she heard a noise unlike anything she had ever heard before.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, standing on her porch in the 100 block of Second Avenue early Saturday afternoon. “It was the loudest noise. I thought the train fell off the tracks behind the house.
“It was so loud and it was so quick.”
Hanson said the noise came with what felt like a shockwave, the kind you see rippling from explosions in movies. It was so strong, she said, it flung open her bedroom door.
Hanson, who was home alone at the time, ran out her front door.
“All of my neighbors were out,” she said. “No one knew what was going on. It was basically just confusion.”
Hanson said she was shocked by what she saw as she looked toward the chocolate factory just a block away from her house. Debris was everywhere, she said, and black smoke soon filled the air.
She also saw people running away from the blast site.
One man, she said, was covered in blood. He stopped to ask her to borrow a lighter to light a cigarette, a shocked and terrified look on his face.
“He told me he had pulled someone out,” Hanson said.
Hanson and her neighbors were evacuated from their homes, but able to return by around 9 p.m. She said she was impressed with how well local emergency responders reacted to the blast.
“Within five minutes, everything was covered, everyone was here,” she said. “They did everything so quickly, that made us feel better. Not normal, whatsoever, but the panic wasn’t as bad.”
Hanson also had kind words for borough Mayor Samantha Kaag, who is also a firefighter. She said she saw the mayor on scene just minutes after the explosion, donning her firefighting gear and helping to douse flames and sift through rubble.
“She’s a cool chick,” Hanson said. “She was out here doing the thing.”
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