Worker who thought she was going to burn to death says falling into vat of chocolate saved her life
A woman pulled alive from the rubble of a Pennsylvania chocolate factory after an explosion that killed seven co-workers says flames engulfed the building and her arm when the ground gave way beneath her. It could have been the end, if she hadn’t fallen into a vat of liquid chocolate.
The dark liquid extinguished her inflamed arm, but Patricia Borges ended up breaking her collarbone and both heels. She would spend the next nine hours screaming for help and waiting for help as firefighters battled hell and helicopters slammed over the RM Palmer Co. plant.
“When I started to burn, I thought that was the end for me,” Borges, 50, told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview from his hospital bed in West Reading, Utah. Pennsylvania, minutes from the chocolate factory where she worked as an operator. National Transportation Safety Board investigators interviewed Borges on Friday, according to his family.
The March 24 explosion at the RM Palmer killed seven of Borges’ co-workers and injured 10. Federal, state and local investigations are ongoing. A cause has not been determined, but the Federal Transportation Safety Agency has called it a natural gas explosion.
Borges said she and others complained of smelling gas about 30 minutes before the plant exploded. She is angry that Palmer didn’t evacuate immediately. She said the deaths of her colleagues – including her close friend, Judith Lopez-Moran – could have been avoided.
Other workers also said they smelled natural gas, according to their relatives. Palmer, a 75-year-old family business with deep roots in the small town 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, did not respond to questions about workers’ demands.
Speaking in Spanish via videoconference, his eyes bruised and his burned right arm heavily bandaged, Borges recounted his terrifying brush with death.
The factory was preparing for a product change that day, so instead of running a candy-wrapping machine as usual, they were helping clean up.
At 4:30 p.m., Borges told the AP she smelled natural gas. It was strong and it made him nauseous. Borges and her colleagues approached their supervisor, asking “what was going to be done, if we were going to be evacuated,” she recalls.
Borges said the supervisor noted that someone higher up would have to make that decision. So she went back to work.
Just before 5 p.m., the two-story brick building exploded.
Borges, who was on a ladder, was knocked to the ground. She heard screaming. There was fire everywhere, and the flames quickly overtook her. “I asked God why he was giving me such a horrible death,” she said. “I asked him to save me, that I didn’t want to die in the fire.”
She started running. That’s when the ground gave way and she felt herself falling – into a long, horizontal tank of chocolate in the basement of the factory. At 4 feet and 10 inches tall, Borges landed on his feet in chest-deep liquid.
The chocolate put out the flames, but she thinks her fall is what broke her feet.
The tub began to fill with water from the firefighters’ hoses, eventually forcing Borges out when she reached neck level. She sat on the edge of the tank, then jumped into a pool of water that had formed in the basement. Briefly submerged, Borges said she took a sip of water before surfacing. She clung to plastic tubes.
And then she waited.
“Help, help, please, help!” she screamed, over and over, for hours. Nobody came.
The pain became more intense. The water was freezing. The main supply pipe to the building’s fire suppression system had ruptured and water was pouring into the basement. She lost track of time but thought she might be there for days.
“The only thing I wanted was to get out of there,” she said.
Finally, in the middle of the night, she saw a light and again cried out for help.
Search and rescue dogs had alerted their handlers that a survivor might be in the rubble. Now, as rescuers cautiously descended to the basement, they heard Borges’ screams.
Calling for calm, rescuers followed the sound of his voice. They found her in a tight space, in water up to her chest. She walked towards them and was placed in a litter.
“She was severely hypothermic and banged up,” conscious but “absolutely confused,” said Ken Pagurek, who helped lead the rescue efforts as program director for Pennsylvania Task Force 1, an emergency response team. emergency that unfolds on disaster sites across the country.
“I think if they hadn’t reached it when they did, there was a very good chance the casualty count would be plus one,” said Pagurek, also a captain with the Philadelphia Fire Department. .
His rescue gave hope to first responders who had already pulled two bodies from the rubble in the hours following the explosion. Rescuers spent two more days on the job. They found five more bodies but no additional survivors.
Borges now faces surgery on both feet and a long recovery. His family started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay the bills.
Borges, who came to the United States 31 years ago from the state of Puebla in south-central Mexico, has worked at Palmer for four years. She said she was looking for accountability.
“I wanted to speak out so that this is avoided in the future,” she said. “For my colleague Judy, I want there to be justice.”