Emergency crews sift through the rubble on March 25, for several missing people after an explosion at R.M. Palmer Co. on March 24, 2023 after an explosion destroyed part of the candy factory. (Jeremy Long - WITF)
Probe of West Reading chocolate factory blast focuses on gas pipeline
Michael Rubinkam/Associated Press
Federal safety officials are investigating the role of a natural gas pipeline in a fatal blast at a Pennsylvania chocolate factory, the National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday.
Friday’s powerful explosion at R.M. Palmer Co. killed seven people, sent 10 to the hospital and damaged several other buildings in West Reading, a small town 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia, where the 75-year-old, family-owned company has long had a factory.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced the probe late Tuesday afternoon, calling the incident a “natural gas” explosion and fire. The agency has preliminary information from local authorities and a natural gas utility that a gas pipeline was involved, an agency spokesperson, Keith Holloway, told The Associated Press.
NTSB is investigating “what caused, how and why the explosion occurred,” according to Holloway.
NTSB will look into how the building was supplied with natural gas, interview witnesses, examine the pipeline for any damage and put together a timeline of events leading up to the explosion.
A preliminary report on the explosion could be available in about three weeks, whereas the final report could take up to two years, he said. Pennsylvania State Police are also investigating the cause.
Other local, state and federal investigations are ongoing.
Pennsylvania State Police have said “everything’s on the table” as fire marshals also try to pinpoint the origin and cause.
Some workers had told relatives they smelled natural gas before the blast, although the gas utility, UGI, said it had received no reports of a gas leak. UGI said it is cooperating with the probe.
“UGI is cooperating with authorities in the investigation concerning the incident at R.M. Palmer,” utility spokesperson Joe Swope said late Tuesday. He directed further questions to the NTSB.
The family that owns the candy company said in a statement Wednesday that the loss of their employees “will be felt forever.”
“My family and I are deeply saddened and heartbroken by the devastating loss of several colleagues and friends as a result of last week’s tragic incident at the West Reading facility,” said the statement from Richard Palmer Jr. and his family.
The Berks County coroner’s office, which previously released the names of two of the seven victims, said it planned to release the rest of the victims’ names on Wednesday afternoon.
StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Rachel McDevitt contributed to this report.