【N.J】 West Reading chocolate factory explosion: Investigation begins – New Jersey News

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The corner of South Second Avenue and Franklin Street in West Reading looked and felt different late Monday morning that it had over the weekend.

The firefighters, police officers, EMTs and other rescue workers who had been tirelessly digging through the debris of a chocolate factory that exploded Friday evening were gone. In their place were cleanup crew members donning reflective vests and white construction helmets as they loaded rubble into dump trucks to be hauled away.

By noon, a pile of twisted metal, broken concrete, shattered glass and charred wood that had spanned South Second Avenue and stood somewhere around 15 feet high on Sunday had all but vanished.

Demolition crews have replaced rescue workers Monday at the site of the explosion at the R. M. Palmer Company in West Reading after the final victims were recovered Sunday. Workers install fencing around the site. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Demolition crews have replaced rescue workers Monday at the site of the explosion at the R. M. Palmer Company in West Reading after the final victims were recovered Sunday. Workers install fencing around the site. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

Gone too were the few dozen people who had gathered on the sidewalks of the intersection, standing behind police tape waiting anxiously and hopefully for news about family members, friends or co-workers still unaccounted for after the blast.

With the announcement by borough officials Sunday night that the bodies of the final two missing people believed to have been inside the plant when it explored had been found, the site had overnight shifted from a rescue and recovery scene to a cleanup scene.

Those two victims — one found around 6:50 p.m. and the other around 8:20 p.m. — brought the total number killed in the blast at the R.M. Palmer Co. disaster to seven.

So far, officials have released the identities of just two of those victims. The Berks County coroner’s office announced early Monday that Amy S. Sandoe, 49, of Ephrata and Domingo Cruz, 60, of Reading were killed in the blast.

The coroner’s office said additional forensic medical examinations are needed to positively identify the remaining five victims. The office is also conducting death investigations for each of the seven victims in coordination with the West Reading Police Department and Berks County Forensic Service Unit to determine their causes and manners of death.

Borough officials have said the identities of victims will be provided after their families are notified and have had time to process the news.

Only one survivor was rescued from the rubble following the blast.

Officials said that early Saturday morning a woman who is believed to have been working on the second floor of the plant was found covered in debris in the building’s basement. She was located when rescue dogs drew workers close enough to hear her calling for help.

Her condition has not been made available.

Officials from Reading Hospital said Monday that all 10 people injured in the blast arrived at their emergency department. Seven were brought by ambulance, and three walked, Dr. Charles Barbera, president and CEO of Reading Hospital, said Monday.

Barbera said that two patients were admitted, one patient was transferred to another hospital and the rest were treated and released. One of the patients who was admitted was released Monday afternoon, he added.

Shifting focus at the scene

At a press briefing Sunday night, West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag said that with no more people missing, the borough’s focus has shifted to notifying and supporting the victims’ families and efforts at the scene have moved to investigating and cleaning up.

“This is really just the start of everything,” Kaag said. “Now, it’s not only the cleanup but getting answers and getting those resources for our community to replace what we lost.”

State police are leading the investigation into the cause and origin of the explosion, officials said. So far, they have not released any information about that investigation.

Trooper David Beohm, public information officer for the Reading station, said at a press briefing Monday afternoon that two of the state police’s top fire marshals are heading up the investigation.

He said it is a “large-scale” effort being undertaken with the cooperation of several other agencies. It is unclear how long the investigation will take, Beohm added, saying that the size of the blast site, the explosion’s violence and the amount of material that was moved during rescue operations over the weekend all make the task difficult.

“When the investigators go in to do their thing, they are trying to look at damaged parts of the building or whatever it may be,” he said. “When they picked the building apart with an excavator, yes, it makes it really hard to try to figure out how things may have happened.

Beohm declined to comment on any details of the investigation — including whether it is being looked at as an accident or if it could involved negligence or foul play — saying that state police will release information once it is complete.

“Everything is on the table at this point because we’re still not done with the investigation,” he said.

Continued impact of the blast

As the investigation and cleanup at the blast site continues, three nearby buildings will remain condemned as a precautionary measure, Kaag said. A building to the north of the site that houses four apartment units and a church, a Palmer building to the south and C&S Supply Co. to the west will all need to remain uninhabited until engineers are able to deem them safe, she said.

“This doesn’t mean they are slated for demolition or are inhabitable, simply that there will still be work happening around them as we proceed and will need to be looked at further by structural engineers before being released,” she said.

Kaag also said that road closures in the area will remain in effect. She said the borough will notify the public when roads are reopened, but that Second Avenue will remain shut down in the area indefinitely.

A community pulling together

West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben, speaking at Sunday’s briefing, lauded the work of everyone who has been part of the difficult, nonstop work over the weekend at the Palmer site.

Crews continue to clear debris Sunday in search of victims at the site of the explosion at the R. M. Palmer Co. chocolate factory in West Reading. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Crews continue to clear debris Sunday in search of victims at the site of the explosion at the R. M. Palmer Co. chocolate factory in West Reading. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

“Throughout this tragedy I have been impressed with the extraordinary efforts and dedication of all the agencies that have come together to support our borough,” he said. “The firefighters, the law enforcement agencies and search and rescue teams. I applaud their work and commitment to our community.

“I would especially like to take a moment to acknowledge the fierce dedication and outstanding work of the West Reading Borough Police Department and the West Reading Borough Fire Department. Your commitment to your community is something to be proud of. It has been a challenging past few days, however it has been an honor to work shoulder-to-shoulder with these individuals, and I would not have had it any other way.”

To aid members of the community who were affected by the explosion in West Reading, two organizations have partnered to create the West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund.

The Berks County Community Foundation and the United Way of Berks County have come together to establish the fund at the request of West Reading Borough Council.

Council President Ryan Lineaweaver said that as of Monday afternoon the fund had already raised about $107,000, which will be used to provide grants to organizations assisting community members impacted by the explosion.

Donations can be made online at bccf.org or by mailing a check to Berks County Community Foundation, 237 Court St., Reading, PA 19601 and noting the West Reading Disaster Recovery Fund in the memo line.

Reporter Karen Shuey contributed to this report.

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