A woman who was pulled alive from the rubble of a Pennsylvania chocolate factory after an explosion that killed seven co-workers says flames had engulfed the building and her arm when the floor gave way under her. That might have been the end of it, if she hadn’t fallen into a vat of liquid chocolate.
The dark liquid put out her burning arm, but Patricia Borges ended up breaking her clavicle and both heels. She would spend the next nine hours screaming for help and waiting for rescue as firefighters battled the inferno and helicopters hovered over the RM Palmer Co. factory.
“When I started to burn, I thought it was the end of me,” Borges, 50, told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview from his hospital bed in West Reading, Pennsylvania, just minutes from the chocolate factory where he worked. machinery operator. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board interviewed Borges on Friday, according to his family.
The March 24 explosion at RM Palmer killed seven of Borges’s co-workers and injured 10. Federal, state and local investigations they are running. A cause has not been determined, but the federal transportation safety agency has characterized it Like a natural gas explosion.
Borges said she and others had complained of a gas smell about 30 minutes before the factory exploded. She is angry that Palmer did not immediately evacuate. She said the deaths of her coworkers, including her close friend Judith Lopez-Moran, could have been prevented.
Other workers have also said that smelled like 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, has not responded to questions about the workers’ claims.
Speaking in Spanish by video link, his eyes black and his 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, I was helping clean up.
At 4:30 pm, Borges told the AP, he smelled natural gas. He was strong and he nauseated her. Borges and his co-workers approached his supervisor and asked her «what was going to be done, if they were going to evacuate us,» he recalled.
Borges said the supervisor noted that someone higher up would have to make that decision. So he went back to work.
Just before 5 p.m., the two-story brick building exploded.
Borges, who had been on a ladder, was thrown to the ground. She heard screams. There was fire everywhere, and the flames reached her quickly. “I asked God why he was giving me such a horrible death,” she said. «I asked him to save me, I didn’t want to die in the fire.»
She started running. It was then that the floor gave way and she could feel herself falling, into a long horizontal vat of chocolate in the basement of the factory. At 4 feet 10 inches tall, Borges landed on his feet in liquid that was up to her chest.
The chocolate put out the flames, but she believes her fall is what broke her feet.
The vat began to fill with water from the fire hoses, eventually forcing Borges out when he reached neck level. He sat on the edge of the tank and then jumped into a puddle of water that had formed on the basement floor. Borges said that briefly submerged, he swallowed a sip of water before rising to the surface. He grabbed a plastic tube.
And then he waited.
«Help, help, please help!» she screamed at herself, over and over again, for hours. Nobody came.
The pain became more intense. The water was ice cold. The main supply pipe for the building’s fire suppression system had ruptured and water was spilling into the basement. He lost track of time, but thought he could be there for days.
“All I wanted was to get out of there,” he said.
Finally, in the middle of the night, he saw a light and yelled again for help.
Search and rescue dogs had alerted their handlers that a survivor might be in the rubble. Now, as the rescuers carefully made their way to the basement, they heard Borges’s screams.
Calling for silence, the rescuers followed the sound of his voice. They found her in a small space, with the water up to her chest. She walked over to them and they placed her on a bunk.
“She was severely hypothermic and beaten up,” conscious but “absolutely confused,” said Ken Pagurek, who helped lead the rescue efforts as a program manager for Pennsylvania Task Force 1, an emergency response team that deploys to disaster sites. in all the country.
“I think if they hadn’t gotten to her when they did, there was a very good chance the number of victims 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 after the blast. Rescuers spent two more days in the pile. They found five more bodies, but no additional survivors.
Borges now faces surgery on both feet and a lengthy recovery. Her family launched a GoFundMe campaign to help her pay the bills.
Borges, who came to the United States 31 years ago from the south-central Mexican state of Puebla, has worked at Palmer for four years. She said that she is looking for responsibility.
“I wanted to speak so that this is prevented in the future,” he said. «To my colleague Judy, I want there to be justice.»