5 dead, 2 missing in factory blast; family of missing woman ‘holding on to faith’

"We're holding onto faith and hope. It just gets more antagonizing as the time goes one," the cousin of a missing woman said.

A fire truck outside of rubble on a street.

Rubble is cleared at the site of a deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pa., Saturday, March 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam)

This story originally appeared on 6abc.

A fifth person was confirmed dead and two people remained unaccounted for Sunday, two days after a powerful explosion at a chocolate factory shook a small Pennsylvania town.

Action News was there as the body of the fifth victim was recovered from the rubble and was loaded into the coroner’s truck.

Earlier, West Reading Borough Chief of Police Wayne Holben confirmed the body of a fourth victim was found under debris Sunday morning at the R.M. Palmer Co. plant in the borough of West Reading in Berks County.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

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 have been using heat imaging equipment and dogs to search for possible survivors after the blast destroyed one building and damaged a neighboring building. Crews were now using heavy equipment to methodically and carefully pull debris from the site, Holben said.

Action News spoke with the cousin of Diana Cedeno. Her fate remains unknown.

“She’s a God-fearing woman. She’s beautiful, she’s a great person,” said Danny Wyatt.

Wyatt said Cedeno had just started her shift when the explosion happened.

“We’re holding onto faith and hope. It just gets more antagonizing as the time goes on,” Wyatt said.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Witnesses reported hearing an explosion coming from the candy factory, then saw flames shortly after.

Kristen Wisniewski lives three blocks from the local and well-known chocolate company.

“It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” she said. “It literally felt like the ground fell out from underneath you. The whole house shook and my dogs froze, they couldn’t move, it was scary.”

The damage is extensive. Officials say RM Palmer Building #2 is destroyed and there’s damage at the neighboring Palmer Building #1.

“It’s pretty leveled, unfortunately there’s not too much to be able to salvage from it,” said Mayor Samantha Kaag. “In the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward.”

There has been no official word on a cause of this blast, including whether it was caused by a gas leak.

A spokesperson for UGI Utilities said crews were brought in after damage from the blast led to the release of gas that was helping to feed the four-alarm fire that erupted after the explosion.

“We did not receive any calls regarding a gas leak or gas order prior to the incident, but we are cooperating with the investigation and part of that will be to check all our facilities in the vicinity,” UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope said Saturday.

Family and friends of those who work in the factory are concerned but are holding out hope. One family member spoke with Action News about his sister, who he says is still missing after the explosion.

“My sister, she came to work and she never made it home,” said Frankie Gonzalez. “There’s still a couple people that are unaccounted for, she’s one of them. We’re hoping she found a pocket she could hide in, we won’t give up our hope.”

Gonzalez says his sister has a daughter, son, and husband at home. He and his family say they are continuing to pray as recovery efforts stretch into the overnight hours.

Officials say one person was found alive and pulled from the rubble overnight Saturday.

“During the overnight hours one person was located alive and rescue workers continue to search for any other possible survivors,” said Chief of Police Wayne Holben. “The discovery of life overnight recovery efforts provides hope that others may still be found.”

Action News has learned the survivor is a woman who worked on the second floor of the factory. She was found in the basement sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.

She was found when rescuers began yelling, “This is the fire department, is anyone there?”

The woman was taken to the hospital after spending approximately eight hours in the rubble. There is no word yet on her current condition or her identity.

Rescue workers were continuing a thorough search using specialized equipment and techniques. Officials said dogs and imaging equipment were being used to look for signs of life during the careful removal of debris.

The names of the people who were killed have not been released.

Tower Health said Saturday that Reading Hospital received a total of 10 patients.

“Of those, one was transferred to Lehigh Valley Hospital, one to Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center, two have been admitted and are in good and fair condition, and the others have been discharged,” the health system said in a statement.

When a father and son duo first heard the explosion, they said they didn’t know what to think.

“I didn’t know, I just come running out and saw that mess over there. I think it was a gas explosion the way it sounded,” said Garry Witmoyer from Wyomissing. “It was very scary, the building filled with smoke from just the explosion.”

“I didn’t see flames at first, just a bunch of shingles and materials falling from the sky. I knew it was an explosion,” said Witmoyer’s son, Garry Witmoyer Jr.

Kaag said people were asked to move back about a block in each direction but no evacuations were ordered. She had issued an emergency declaration only to allow more resources for first responders. Borough manager Dean Murray said some residents were displaced from the damaged apartment building.

Philip Wert, vice president of the West Reading council, said the building had been constructed in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and officials had to “access our archive to pull the blueprints last night, in order to get a better layout of the building and the mechanicals and the utilities, where things are.”

“The silver lining in all this is someone was found alive, someone was found alive that was in rubble, not knowing whether they were going to live or die, and fortunately we found that person and they’ve got a second chance, and hopefully fingers crossed we’re going to find more,” he said.

R.M. Palmer Company released the following statement on the incident Saturday afternoon:

“Everyone at RM Palmer is devastated by the tragic events at one of our West Reading facilities and we are focused on supporting our employees and their families. We have lost close friends and colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all who have been impacted. We are sincerely grateful for the extraordinary efforts of all of the first responders and for the support of our Reading community, which has been home to our business for more than 70 years. We will continue to coordinate closely with local and national agencies to assist in the recovery process.

We are anxious to be in touch with all employees and the families of employees who have been impacted, but the company’s email, phones, and other communication systems are down, and therefore we are relying currently on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide any available information to impacted families. We will be providing additional information and making contact with employees, impacted families, and the community as soon as possible.”

R.M. Palmer also released a crisis hotline on Saturday for families and anyone who needs support. The number is 610-374-5224 and the extension is 539.

The company’s website says it has been making “chocolate novelties” since 1948 and now has 850 employees at its West Reading headquarters.

Governor Josh Shapiro and PEMA Director Randy Padfield visited the site on Saturday. Shapiro pledged ongoing resources and support.

“Our hearts break for the families of those who didn’t come home,” Shapiro said in a statement. “We are with you – and my Administration is here to provide all the resources and support West Reading needs.”

Others in the community, such as volunteer groups in Berks County, have also pledged their support in helping those impacted by the explosion.

“I’ve never been more proud of Berks County, I’ve never been more proud of West Reading. We really did come together as a family and a community,” noted Kaag.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal