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West Reading chocolate factory explosion: Resources available to help in healing

When West Reading officials gathered for a special meeting inside a small, crowded board room at borough hall Tuesday evening, it was to handle a bit of business.

Borough council needed to extend a local disaster declaration and approve the continued closure of two roads near the R.M. Palmer Co. chocolate plant on South Second Avenue that exploded last Friday — two items that were handled in short order.

But the meeting, from its onset, took on a much different shape than a typical one where council discusses and passes resolutions and ordinances. It quickly became about healing, about starting the long process of recovering from a tragic and devastating moment that took the lives of seven people and rattled the small, quiet borough.

Council President Ryan Lineaweaver began the meeting by addressing the handful of television news cameras that were tucked in a corner of the boardroom. He said that if journalists were looking for updates on the investigation into the blast, they were in the wrong place.

Ryan Lineaweaver
Ryan Lineaweaver

The night, he said, was about the West Reading community.

“We’re here to share resources for our community that suffered a terrible loss Friday,” he said.

Lineaweaver said the weekend was a difficult time for many in the community, from those who lost loved ones to people who were injured to emergency workers who spent countless hours responding to the tragedy. And many of those people will need help dealing with what they experienced, he added.

Fortunately, Lineaweaver said, agencies and organizations in Berks County and beyond have stepped up to offer that help. The broader community has rallied around West Reading in a touching and much-needed show of support, he said.

“It’s a harrowing experience, certainly, but also a very grateful one seeing how this community came together,” he said.

Lineaweaver encouraged those who need help to take advantage of the resources that are available, saying he will likely do so himself.

“I’ve seen and heard things this weekend I can’t forget,” he said. “Please, utilize what we’ve brought together and don’t be ashamed.”

Offering help

Several of those offering assistance attended Tuesday’s meeting, sharing information on the services they can provide.

Officials from the county’s Office of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities said crisis intervention call centers are available 24 hours a day, and an emergency behavioral response team has been activated to assist with mental health needs following the tragedy.

Officials from Reading Hospital said bereavement support groups are available for those who lost loved ones.

And an official from Crisis Response Canines said specially trained and certified comfort dogs — including Piper, who attended the meeting — were available to help.

Tom Gombar, district office director for state Sen. Judy Schwank, said the lawmaker has meet with Gov. Josh Shapiro, and the state is ready to help in three ways.

First, he said funding will be made available to the borough and first responders to help replenish resources used during the response to the explosion.

Second, those who have been displaced from their jobs because of the blast will be eligible for rapid-response unemployment services. They can be accessed through PA Career Link and include the option of signing up for benefits in-person rather than online.

Finally, Gombar said, the state will offer assistance to the businesses impacted by the explosion.

State Rep. Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz confirmed Gombar’s offers of help and provided words of comfort to borough officials.

“I want you to know you’re not alone, we’re all in this together,” she said. “Whatever you need, whatever you can think of, reach out. It could be the smallest to the largest thing.”

Reading City Council President Donna Reed likewise offered kind words for borough officials, saying their actions over the weekend inspired her.

“The way you all stepped up to the plate makes me proud to be a public servant,” she said, singling out Mayor Samantha Kaag. “Mayor, if I wore a hat I’d tip it to you nonstop.”

Reed said the city will do whatever it can to assist the borough as it begins to walk toward a long, winding path of healing.

Demolition crews have replaced rescue workers Monday at the site of the explosion at the R. M. Palmer Company in West Reading after the final victims were recovered Sunday. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Demolition crews replaced rescue workers Monday at the site of the explosion at the R.M. Palmer Co. chocolate factory in West Reading after the final victims were recovered Sunday. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

“We are all neighbors,” she said. “We will do whatever we can to offer whatever we can.”

BobbiJo Hafer, Base Service Unit supervisor at Service Access Management, was not at Tuesday’s meeting, but she explained Wednesday that her staff will help people who have no insurance or no behavioral/mental health coverage through their insurance to get the help they need.

“An individual would need to do a Medical Assistance application with my staff to provide income verification because we do a liability determination,” Hafer said. “If someone has income, it pretty much sets what a co-payment would be for that individual until their Medical Assistance would be approved.”

Her agency will fund up to 90 days of service, which includes the actual intake appointment with an outpatient provider and sessions with a therapist. Medication is not covered and must be purchased by the patient. She said it is important to follow through on submitting all the documentation to Medical Assistance, which has 30 days to approve or deny the application, or the funding could stop.

If a person has insurance but not behavioral/mental health coverage, the patient needs to provide a letter from their insurance carrier stating they do not have that coverage.

If someone already has Medical Assistance, she advised they go to Community Care Behavioral Health’s website,

“Go through member, go through mental health/behavior health treatment, hit adult, you can put your ZIP code in and it will bring up everyone that accepts that insurance,” Hafer said.

Help available

• Berks County mental health crisis hotline — Call 610-379-2007 or 1-888-219-3910.

Berks County’s Suicide Prevention Task Force — Text ruOK to 484-816-7865 or visit

• Service Access Management — Provides those without medical insurance access to mental health resources. Call 610-236-0530.

• PA Career Link — Offering rapid-response unemployment services to those impacted by the explosion. Call 610-988-1300.

• Crisis Response Canines — Call 856-336-0330.

• Chaplains at Reading Hospital — For information about bereavement support groups or spiritual care, call 484-628-8210.

• PA 211 — For referrals to resources for mental health, food, housing, disaster services and other services, call 2-1-1.

Tips for filing property damage insurance claims

The Pennsylvania Insurance Department offers the following tips for filing a property damage claim:

• Know your insurance information, such as the name of the company, your agent, policy number and phone number for filing a claim.

• Know what is in your policy. “An insurance policy is a contract between you (the policyholder) and the insurance company. Know what’s covered, what’s excluded and what the deductibles are. If you have any questions about what’s covered, ask.”

• Keep a record of those to whom you speak, including the person’s name, the date and time you spoke.

• Photograph and make a list of the damaged items.

• Save any receipts for materials purchased for repairs.

• Do not throw away damaged property until the claims adjuster advises you to do so.

• Protect your property from further damage by making temporary repairs until your insurance company is able to advise you.

• Do not have permanent repairs made until your insurance company has inspected the property and you have reached an agreement on the cost of repairs. If you do make permanent repairs before the adjuster has seen the damage, your claim could be denied.

• Once a claim has been filed, an insurance company is required to respond in writing within 15 business days to let you know if the claim has been accepted or rejected.

Source: Berkshire mont

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