After Blast, She Caught on Fire. Then, a Plunge Into Chocolate

'I thought it was the end for me,' says Patricia Borges, who survived Pennsylvania plant explosion
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 31, 2023 2:23 PM CDT
After Blast, She Caught on Fire. Then, a Plunge Into Chocolate
This photo shows Patricia Borges. Borges was pulled alive from the rubble of the RM Palmer Co. factory, a chocolate factory in West Reading, Pennsylvania, after an explosion that killed seven co-workers.   (Family of Patricia Borges via AP)

A woman pulled alive from the rubble of a Pennsylvania chocolate factory after an explosion that killed seven co-workers says her arm caught fire as flames engulfed the building—and then she fell through the floor into a vat of liquid chocolate. The dark liquid extinguished her blazing arm, but Patricia Borges wound up breaking her collarbone and both of her heels. She would spend the next nine hours screaming for help and waiting for rescue as firefighters battled the inferno and choppers thumped overhead at the RM Palmer Co. factory. "When I began to burn, I thought it was the end for me," Borges, 50, told the AP in an interview from her hospital bed in West Reading, Pennsylvania.

Borges, a machine operator who'd been on a ladder when the blast occurred, was thrown to the ground. There was fire everywhere, and the flames quickly overtook her. She began to run, which is when the floor gave way and she felt herself falling—into a long, horizontal tank of chocolate in the factory's basement. At 4 feet, 10 inches tall, Borges landed on her feet in chest-high liquid. The chocolate put out the flames, but she believes her fall is what broke her feet. The vat began filling with water from firefighters' hoses, eventually forcing Borges to climb out as it reached neck level.

She sat on the lip of the tank, then jumped into a pool of water that had formed on the basement floor. And then she waited. "Help, help, please help!" she yelled, over and over, for hours. No one came—until the middle of the night, when she finally saw a rescuer's light and screamed anew for help. Rescuers found her in a tight space, in chest-deep water. The March 24 blast at RM Palmer killed seven of Borges' co-workers and injured 10. Federal, state, and local probes are underway. A cause hasn't been determined, but the NTSB has characterized it as a natural gas explosion.

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Borges said she and others had complained about a gas odor about 30 minutes before the factory blew up. She's angry Palmer didn't immediately evacuate. She said the deaths of her co-workers—including her close friend, Judith Lopez-Moran—could've been prevented. Other workers have also said they smelled natural gas, according to their relatives. Palmer, a 75-year-old, family-run company with deep roots in the small town 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, hasn't responded to questions about the workers' claims. Borges now faces surgery on both feet and a long recovery, with a GoFundMe campaign launched to help her pay the bills. (More Pennsylvania stories.)

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