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Pa.’s Task Force 1 search-and-rescue team helped recover West Reading factory explosion victims

Emergency crews sift through the rubble on March 25, for several missing people after an explosion at R.M. Palmer Co. on March 24, 2023 after an explosion destroyed part of the candy factory. (Jeremy Long - WITF)
Jeremy Long
Emergency crews sift through the rubble for several missing people after an explosion at R.M. Palmer Co.

An elite search and rescue team was on scene trying to find survivors, and to recover the bodies of those killed, in a chocolate factory explosion in West Reading last week.

Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency deployed the team known as Task Force 1 to help with recovery efforts there, after the R.M. Palmer candy factory exploded around 5 p.m. Friday. One woman was found alive, while seven others initially declared dead or missing were eventually found in the rubble. Several others were injured and taken to area hospitals.

Ken Pagurek, a captain at the Philadelphia Fire Department, is the program manager for Task Force 1. He said PEMA officials called the unit for help within a few hours of the blast, and he arrived at the scene shortly after.

“When I got out there, there was still active firefighting going on,” Pagurek said. “What was previously a two-story building was down on the ground.”

Based in Philadelphia, Task Force 1 is one of 28 urban search and rescue crews that respond to significant incidents across the country. Born in the aftermath of disasters such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California, these teams are trained to handle the exact kind of disaster that struck the Berks County community.

Pagurek said the unit has been called upon to help at some of the worst disaster sites in recent history. The team spent almost three weeks recovering some of the 98 victims of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, in 2021.

“We were there for roughly 17 days,” he said “You get your training, and then you have your toolbox from all these other incidents that you go to. You bring your knowledge to bear at every incident.”

Over the course of its days-long deployment in West Reading, the team had to contend with piles of twisted rubble and a nearby building that was in danger of collapse. The Associated Press reports city officials have since condemned several buildings surrounding the factory siteuntil structural engineers can determine whether they’re safe.

“We had a four-story building next to us where the wall had pushed out 18 inches to 2 feet in various areas and was in imminent danger of collapse,” Pagurek said. “But we continued searching through the rain and the weather and we made safe the site [sic] as best as we could.”

“A train was going by at 40 miles per hour, and we had to request it to cease operations for quite a while…and we requested a 5 mile per hour speed to reduce the amount of vibration to make the area safer,” Pagurek added.

The initial hours of the disaster brought confusion: Pagurek said it was unclear how many people were trapped, but noted that kind of uncertainty is not unusual.

“When it’s so late in the day, you don’t know who’s left the building and who might still be inside,” Pagurek explained.

“One of the issues that complicated determining who remained is [that] the computer systems were all taken out, so they had no access to their HR stuff,” he added. “So if they had a timeclock, if someone were to punch in or punch out, there was no data available.”
Task Force 1 and other rescuers recovered all of the victims by the end of the weekend.

“In the end, it’s about bringing closure to people,” Pagurek said. “When there is no rescue to be made, recovering those individuals and getting them back to their families is just as important.”

An investigation into what caused the blast is now underway. A probe by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration Is expected to take the next six months.

West Reading borough leaders are not commenting on reports fromworkers who smelled natural gas before the explosion. Investigators will likely examine those claims and whether other factors, such as the presence of highly flammable cocoa powder, contributed to the blast.

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