【N.J】 West Reading chocolate factory explosion: Helping the helpers – New Jersey News

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When a violent and devastating explosion tore through a West Reading chocolate factory Friday evening, it was an all-hands-on-deck situation.

Firefighters and EMTs and police officers rushed to the R.M. Palmer Co. plant in the first block of South Second Avenue, dousing flames and digging through rubble looking for survivors. They would continue their efforts Saturday and Sunday, many working 12- to 16-hour shifts in a desperate attempt to find those still missing in the debris.

It was tedious, backbreaking, emotionally draining work. But it was work the rescuers couldn’t turn away from, with many refusing to stop for breaks.

They were there to help.

Many other people in West Reading and the rest of Berks County, seeing images of the tragedy in media coverage of the blast that ended up taking the lives of seven, wanted to help, too. But those who weren’t emergency responders, who weren’t able to search through the debris, had to find other ways to lend a hand.

So several turned their attention to helping the helpers.

Throughout the weekend, several groups and local businesses delivered supplies to the scene, trying to make sure exhausted rescue workers had enough cold beverages, hot coffee and warm food. They also wanted to make sure those working so hard under such dire circumstances knew how much they are appreciated.

A little before 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Ryan Redner and Eric White drove up to the scene of the blast site in a maroon Yukon filled with refreshments for the first responders who were still searching for victims.

The men then began to pull large aluminum trays filled to the brim with fried chicken and cases of Gatorade from the back of the vehicle. They handed over the supplies to firefighters and police officers on the scene who had been working with the men to coordinate the effort.

Eric White, left, and Ryan Redner of Redner's Market Inc. delivered trays of friend chicken and cases of Gatorade on Sunday to those who were searching for victims of the deadly blast in West Reading. (DAVID MEKEEL - READING EAGLE)
Eric White, left, and Ryan Redner, both of Redner’s Market Inc., delivered trays of fried chicken and cases of Gatorade on Sunday to those who were searching for victims of the deadly blast in West Reading. (DAVID MEKEEL – READING EAGLE)

Redner, president of Redner’s Markets Inc., said it was important for him to show his gratitude for the work that was being done by the first responders.

“I have been amazed by the camaraderie of the community in a time of such tragedy,” he said. “I live literally 2 miles away so I know how this has had a ripple effect through the community. Everyone is coming together arm-in-arm to help any way they can.”

White, the director of marketing and communications for the Maidencreek Township-based company, said donating a warm lunch to the crew felt like the most immediate thing they could do during a catastrophic situation like this.

“From our standpoint, this is probably the best way we could help all these people who are working around the clock to do what they have to do,” he said. “This is Berks County, this is what we do. The greatest thing about this community is that when something like this happens everyone knows the drill — do what you can do.”

Frontline support

Wes MacDonald said he felt that same call to take action.

MacDonald is the Philadelphia regional manager for Rapid Relief Team, an initiative of Plymouth Brethren Christian Church that displays care and compassion to people in crisis. The group provides free catering assistance and tangible support to emergency services, local governments and charitable organizations.

The Rapid Relief Team set up an operation at Second Avenue and Franklin Street on Saturday, grilling up burgers and providing other food and drinks for rescue workers as well as for family members, friends and onlookers who gathered at the scene.

“We respond to communities in their times of need,” MacDonald said. “Our focus is on supporting the frontline services during tragic events like this. Community, compassion and support is the motto we put to practice.”

MacDonald said he keeps up with events that are happening around the region, so when he heard about the explosion in West Reading on Friday evening he decided to mobilize a team of volunteers to support those who were working around the clock to find survivors of the devastating blast.

When the team members got to the site they parked about a block away from the scene of the blast, set up a large tent to shield people from the rain and fired up the grills. They got to work grilling hamburgers for those at the scene.

MacDonald said it was a privilege to serve them.

“Some of these people have been on the scene since this incident happened, so we feel compelled to serve because of what they are doing,” he said Saturday. “They are helping to bring some closure to the families of the victims, and we want to do what we can to show our support for that mission.”

In the neighborhood

Victor Pytleski didn’t have to read about the blast in the news, he felt it.

The owner of 3rd and Spruce Drafthaus, which is only a few blocks from the chocolate factory, was at his establishment when the explosion happened.

“It has a huge, loud boom,” he said. “It shook things for blocks. We didn’t know what it was, but no one thought it was something like this. It’s crazy.”

When Pytleski and his staff realized what had taken place, they wanted desperately to do something to contribute. So on Saturday they put together some wraps, pizzas and an assortment of hot food and delivered it to those working at the scene.

“It’s only a little bit, but it’s what we can do,” Pytleski said. “We’re just trying to do what little we can to help these guys out.”

Pytleski said the tragedy at the Palmer plant felt personal, as many workers there regularly stop by 3rd and Spruce.

“These are people who live or work here, or they come with their families to eat in our restaurant,” he said. “You see these kinds of things happen in other places, but until it happens to you, to your community, you can’t really understand what it’s like.”

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