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 factory.
“When I began to burn, I thought it was the end for me,” Borges, 50, told the Associated Press in an exclusive interview from her hospital bed in West Reading, Pennsylvania, just minutes from the chocolate factory where she worked as a machine operator. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board planned to interview Borges on Friday.
The 24 March blast at RM Palmer killed seven of Borges’s co-workers and injured 10. Federal, state and local officials are investigating. A cause has not been determined, but the federal transportation safety agency has characterized it as a natural gas explosion. All seven bodies have since been recovered from the site.
Borges said she and others had complained about a gas odor roughly 30 minutes before the factory blew up. She is angry Palmer did not immediately evacuate. She said the deaths of her co-workers – including her close friend, Judith Lopez-Moran – could have 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 its small home town north-west of Philadelphia, had not responded on Friday to the workers’ claims.
Speaking in Spanish over videoconference, her eyes bruised and her burned right arm heavily bandaged, Borges recounted her terrifying brush with death after the 5pm explosion.
Borges was thrown to the ground from a ladder after the blast. She began running, but the floor gave way, and she fell into a horizontal chocolate tank in the facility’s basement. The chocolate protected her from the blast’s flames. But then the vat began filling with water from firefighters’ hoses, and for hours she screamed, “Help, help, please help!”
First, search dogs alerted rescuers that there might a survivor in the rubble. Then crews found Borges by following the sound of her voice. She was in chest-deep water, and her feet were broken, but her rescue gave an emotional boost to crews who by then had already pulled out two bodies.
Borges came to the US more than 30 years ago after growing up in the Mexican state of Puebla. She faces surgery on both of her feet and a long recovery, and her family has launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover some of her expected medical expenses.
She hopes the factory will be held to account after failing to immediately evacuate workers when they reported the gaseous smell.
“I wanted to speak so that this will be prevented in the future,” she said. “For my colleague Judy, I want there to be justice.”
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