West Reading chocolate factory explosion: What we know

Mar. 26—A massive explosion at the RM Palmer chocolate factory in West Reading on Friday has resulted in multiple deaths and injuries, with others still unaccounted for.

Below is the latest information on what we know, and don't know, about the blast.

What is the death toll?

Seven people have died in the blast, with all the missing now believed to be accounted for. The final two victims were found in the rubble Sunday evening.

No information has been released on the identities of the victims, and won't be until officials can ensure that the families of the victims have been notified.

What caused the explosion?

The cause of the blast is under investigation, according to West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben.

UGI Utilities Inc. is assisting with the investigation, said company spokesman Joe Swope. The utility responded to the scene Friday night to help firefighters by cutting off natural gas to the neighborhood, Swope said. About 40 customers were disconnected, most of whom have now been restored.

How long will the investigation take?

The investigation will be an "all weekend" thing and likely extend even longer, according to West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag.

What is the status of the rescue efforts?

Rescue crews are continuing to work at the scene, methodically removing debris left by the blast and looking for any survivors.

With more than 24 hours having passed since the explosion, finding more survivors is becoming more and more unlikely, Holben said.

That somber assessment followed a glimmer of hope when it was announced that a survivor had been rescued from the rubble early Saturday. Holben could not provide any further information about the survivor or their condition.

What is the condition of those injured in the explosion?

Reading Hospital provided an update Saturday night about patients from the blast who were rushed the few short blocks to its emergency department.

A hospital spokeswoman said that a total of 10 patients were transported to Reading Hospital. One of them was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital and one was transferred to Penn St. Health St. Joseph hospital. Six patients have been discharged, and two have been admitted.

One of the patients admitted at Reading Hospital was listed in fair condition and the other was in good condition, the spokesperson said. Information on the conditions of the patients who were transferred to other hospitals was not immediately available.

Where at the chocolate factory did the blast occur?

The blast, which occurred around 4:57 p.m. Friday, destroyed Building No. 2 at the plant at 55 S. Second Ave., and caused damage to Building No. 1 at 77 S. Second Ave., Holben said.

Are the other buildings in the area safe?

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.

The blast was so forceful, it apparently caused a building housing apartments and a church in front of the plant to move four feet forward, according to Kaag.

How many people have been displaced by the blast?

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.

Dean Murray, the borough manager of West Reading Borough, said some residents were displaced from the damaged apartment building.

When will roads around the explosion reopen?

Holben said that the ongoing work at the scene will mean roads in the area that have been shut down since the blast will continue to be closed through at least 8 a.m. Monday.

West Reading has declared a state of emergency. What does that mean?

The state of emergency will help aid in search and rescue efforts, Kaag said. She stressed that residents should not interpret that declaration as a reason to be afraid or unsafe, saying it will allow West Reading to gain access to more resources.

What has the company said?

R.M. Palmer Co. issued a statement Saturday, saying it was "devastated by the tragic events" and "focused on supporting our employees and their families."

The company has also been assisting with rescue efforts and provided officials with information on who was likely in the building at the time of the blast, Kaag said.

What else do we know about the company?

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.

How can I help?

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.

For details, view our guide on how you can help.