Massive Explosion at Factory Leaves Woman Stuck in Vat of Chocolate

Patricia Borges was working as a machine operator on the second floor of the R.M. Palmer chocolate factory in West Reading, Pennsylvania on March 24, when a massive explosion went off. As flames engulfed the building her arm caught fire. That was only the beginning of a nightmare of screaming, nine hours long, but she lived to tell the tale.

Dipped in chocolate

When the blast rocked the R.M. Palmer chocolate factory, seven were killed and 10 injured. Patricia Borges was one of the injured, pulled alive from the rubble after a search dog discovered her, trapped in a vat of liquid cocoa.

The only thing that saved her life is it wasn’t hot. It put out her burning arm after the floor collapsed underneath her and she splashed down. It wasn’t a soft landing. She broke her collarbone and both heels.

That’s when she started screaming for help. And kept screaming, all night long. Ms. Borges, 50, “would spend the next nine hours screaming for help and waiting for rescue as firefighters battled the inferno and choppers thumped overhead.

She didn’t think she’d ever get out of that vat full of chocolate. “When I began to burn, I thought it was the end for me,” she relates from her hospital bed.

Mayor Samantha Kaag relates what she knows of the story. Borges “had apparently been on the second floor and was found in a ‘hopeful circumstance,’ calling out to rescuers despite her injuries after a dog found her.

She wasn’t about to stop screaming until she was out of the chocolate. She’ll probably start screaming again any time she sees the stuff from now on.

Explosion cause not clear

The mayor notes that federal, state and local investigations are all underway at the same time at the chocolate factory. Ms. Borges family relates that investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board interviewed Borges on Friday. A spokesperson for the board insists that “a cause has not been determined, but the federal transportation safety agency has characterized it as a natural gas explosion.

The NTSB seems to suggest that the jury’s still out on that. “Everything’s on the table at this point because we’re still not done with the investigation. To say it’s one way or another, I would not say that at this point.

While utility spokesman Joe Swope reported “the utility detected leaks at a few street-level locations some distance from the plant after the gas was turned back on.” They fixed those quick. “The company believes these are unrelated to the explosion at Palmer.

There are several alternative causes to consider and “two state police fire marshals” are still “working to determine the cause and origin of the blast.” OSHA is going over the debris with a magnifying glass and say “Natural gas wasn’t the only possible cause.” They lean toward chocolate dust.

Food manufacturers of all sorts “must take steps to mitigate the risk of fire and explosion from flammable dust produced by ingredients like cocoa powder and corn starch, said Holly Burgess, technical lead for industrial and chemical safety at the National Fire Protection Association.

People don’t generally consider that “each batch is different, so the chocolate material in cocoa that I’m getting from one place might have a bigger particle size or a smaller particle size.” Over the weekend, R.M. Palmer released a statement assuring 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.” They also note “the tragic events that occurred on Friday have had a profound impact on all of us at R.M. Palmer, and we appreciate the outpouring of support as all of us continue to deal with the loss of our friends and coworkers.

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