R.M. Palmer Explosion Kills 7 in West Reading, PA [Updated]

Updated October 9, 2023 with OSHA report A natural gas explosion at R.M. Palmer Co.’s chocolate factory in West Reading, PA on March 24 killed seven people and injured 10 others. The coroner has released the names of the victims. They are:

  • Michael D. Breedy, 62, of Marion Township, PA
  • Diana M. Cedeno, 44, of Reading, PA
  • Domingo Cruz, 60, of Reading, PA
  • Susan H. Halvonik, 63, of Upper Providence Township, PA
  • Judith Lopez-Moran, 55, of Reading, PA
  • Xiorky D. Nunez, 30, of Reading, PA
  • Amy S. Sandoe, 49, of Ephrata, PA

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NTSB Opens Investigation

R.M. Palmer employs 850 people at its plant in West Reading, located about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where it makes seasonal candies such as hollow milk chocolate Easter bunnies. The explosion was so large that it also damaged neighboring buildings and homes.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has determined that a natural gas pipeline was involved in the explosion and has opened a safety investigation.

R.M. Palmer Explosion

Employees Smelled Gas Before the Explosion

Before the explosion, employees had been complaining about the smell of gas, according to reporting by WGAL and the Associated Press. Frank Gonzalez, whose son and nephew worked at the plant, told reporters that his son quit a few months ago because he didn’t like the smell of gas. Gonzalez said both men complained to supervisors about the smell and were told it was being handled and not to worry about it.

Arelis Rivera Santiago is a Palmer employee who was working in a neighboring building when the explosion occurred. The blast caused the ceiling of the building she was in to cave in and she had to crawl under machinery and debris to make her way to safety, her stepfather Frank DeJesus told reporters. He said that throughout the day his stepdaughter and other Palmer employees complained about the smell of gas to supervisors and were told not to worry about it and that it was being taken care of.

But, UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope told reporters that the company hadn’t received any calls regarding a gas leak or gas order before the incident.

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OSHA Finds R.M. Plamer Failed to Evacuate Employees

In a report released on October 9, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that R. M. Palmer failed to evacuate employees after some reported smelling gas before the deadly March 2023 explosion.

The agency cited the company for:

  • Not evacuating workers
  • Not marking emergency exit signs clearly
  • Using flexible cords improperly
  •  Recordkeeping violations