Tragedy struck on Friday as a massive explosion devastated a renowned chocolate factory in West Reading, Pennsylvania, resulting in the deaths of five individuals and leaving six others unaccounted for. The force of the blast, which occurred around 5 p.m., sent shockwaves through the community, causing homes several blocks away to tremble and a thick cloud of smoke to billow into the sky, authorities reported.
The R.M. Palmer Company chocolate factory, situated approximately 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, suffered extensive damage as a result of the explosion. One building was entirely demolished, while another incurred significant damage, according to West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben, who provided details during a press conference.
Investigators are currently working to determine the cause of the explosion. On Saturday, Ruth A. Miller, Communications Director for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, disclosed in an email that seven individuals had been transported to nearby hospitals for treatment.
Dramatic footage captured by weather cameras depicted a towering column of debris, fire, and dust erupting skyward as the explosion occurred. The video was later shared on Twitter by a Fox 29 News reporter from Philadelphia.
West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag, who also serves as a firefighter, described the severity of the blast during the press conference, stating, "The explosion was so immense that it shifted the building four feet forward." Upon arriving at the scene, she added, "It was a frightening sight to behold."
Despite the devastation, Chief Holben assured the public that there was no immediate threat to the surrounding area. However, he urged people to steer clear of the scene, and noted that a command center had been established to facilitate the coordination of local and state agencies responding to the disaster.
Established in 1948, R.M. Palmer Company is an employer of 850 people, as stated on its website, and is renowned for its production of seasonal chocolates, such as hollow milk chocolate bunnies for Easter. West Reading Borough Manager Dean Murray referred to the company as "a cornerstone of the borough."
Murray expressed his condolences, saying, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved in this tragic incident." The company has yet to issue a statement in response to an email sent on Friday evening.
In a separate interview, Mayor Kaag recounted her own experience with the explosion, which she felt from her residence, located four or five blocks away from the factory. Rather than hearing a booming sound, she said, "I simply felt my house shake as a result of the blast."