WEST READING, Pa. –
All seven bodies have been recovered from the site of a powerful explosion at a chocolate factory in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, officials said.
West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag said in a statement Sunday night that none of the victims will be named until officials are certain that all families have been contacted.
“Please understand that this is a devastating loss, but we are truly grateful to bring closure to the families involved in the upcoming days,” Kaag said.
Police Chief Wayne Holben said at a press briefing just after 9 p.m. that rescue workers had found the bodies earlier in the evening and that they are believed to be the remaining two individuals who were listed as missing earlier in the day. Their identities will be confirmed by the Berks County Coroner’s Office, he said.
One of the victims was found around 6:50 p.m., and the other around 8:20 p.m., Holben said. The deaths bring the total number killed in the blast to seven.
Earlier Kaag confirmed to the Associated Press that the fifth body was found Sunday morning by first responders and confirmed dead by the Berks County Coroner’s Office. The coroner was unable to confirm the identity of that person, Kaag said.
West Reading Borough Chief of Police Wayne Holben confirmed the body of a fourth victim was found under debris early Sunday at the R.M. Palmer Co. plant in the borough of West Reading, about 60 miles (96 kilometres) northwest of Philadelphia.
Holben asked for continued prayers from the community and vowed that rescuers and officials “will not rest until every single person affected by this tragedy has been accounted for” from the blast that occurred just before 5 p.m. Friday.
Rescue crews had been using heat imaging equipment and dogs to search for possible survivors after the blast destroyed one building and damaged a neighbouring building. Crews were using heavy equipment to methodically and carefully pull debris from the site, Holben said.
Three buildings around the site will be condemned as a precaution, Kaag said.
“This does not mean they are slated for demolition or uninhabitable,” she said. “Simply that there will still be work happening around them as we proceed and they will need to be looked at further by structural engineers.”
Borough Fire Chief Chad Moyer said Saturday night that the chance of finding survivors was “decreasing rapidly” due to the explosion’s force and the amount of time that had passed. Kaag said officials were “still hopeful to at least get some answers and get some recoveries so that people have that reassurance and that closure.”
Officials said they had no update on the condition of a woman pulled alive from the rubble early Saturday. Kaag said she had apparently been on the second floor and was found in a “hopeful circumstance,” calling out to rescuers despite her injuries after a dog located her.
Officials also reported no updates on the conditions of those taken to hospitals. Reading Hospital said it received 10 patients and transferred two to other facilities, while two others were admitted in good and fair condition respectively and the others had been discharged.
R.M. Palmer said in a statement Saturday afternoon that everyone at the company was “devastated” and it was reaching out to employees and their families through first responders and disaster recovery organizations because its communication systems were down.
Kaag, a volunteer firefighter herself, said rescue crews had been working 12- to 16-hour shifts and were so dedicated to continuing the search that “you have to pull them away at this point” to swap out and get some rest.
Gov. Josh Shapiro visited the site Saturday and vowed support from the state.
Kaag said some residents have reported damage to windows from the blast, and she asked people to “take a walk around your house” and report any damage.
State and local fire investigators are continuing to examine the scene to try to determine the cause of the blast.