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Flags ordered to half-staff to honor 7 dead in plant blast

WEST READING, Pa. — The governor of Pennsylvania has ordered commonwealth flags flown at half-staff in honor of seven people whose bodies were recovered from the site of a powerful explosion at a chocolate factory.

“West Reading, we stand with you — and we’ll continue to provide all of the support your community needs,” Gov. Josh Shapiro said in a Twitter post Monday, referring to the borough about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia where the R.M. Palmer Co. plant blast occurred at about 5 p.m. Friday.

West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag, in a statement Sunday night, called it “a devastating loss” but said “we are truly grateful to bring closure to the families involved in the upcoming days.”

The Berks County coroner’s office on Monday morning identified two of the victims as 49-year-old Amy Sandoe of Ephrata and 60-year-old Domingo Cruz of Reading and said “additional forensic medical examinations” would be needed to positively identify the other five victims. Autopsies are expected to be completed by the end of week, officials said.

West Reading Borough Chief of Police Wayne Holben said at a press briefing just after 9 p.m. Sunday that rescue workers had earlier in the evening found two bodies believed to be the remaining two individuals listed as missing. One of the victims was found around 6:50 p.m. and the other around 8:20 p.m., Holben said. Earlier, Kaag confirmed to The Associated Press that the fifth body was found Sunday morning. Holben said the body of a fourth victim was found under debris early Sunday.

Rescue crews had 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 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, but that didn't mean they were uninhabitable or slated for demolition, merely that they would need further examination by structural engineers, Kaag said.

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 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.

State and local fire investigators are continuing to examine the scene to try to determine the cause of the blast.

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