NTSB Releases Documents about Chocolate Factory Explosion that Killed 7

08 Mar, 2024 Liz Carey


West Reading, PA (WorkersCompensation.com) – A preliminary ruling from the National Transportation Safety Board found that an explosion at the R.M. Palmer Co. chocolate factory that killed seven was likely fueled by natural gas.

The explosion in March of last year, leveled the building and rocked West Reading, Penn, killing seven and injuring 10, officials said. In October, an OSHA investigation into the incident found that the company did not have workers exit the facility after some reported smelling gas prior to the explosion. OSHA determined that the cause of the explosion was a natural gas leak.

"Seven workers will never return home because the R.M. Palmer Co. did not evacuate the facility after bring told of a suspected gas leak," OSHA Area Director Kevin Chambers in Harrisburg, Pa., said in a statement last year. "The company could have prevented this horrific tragedy by following required safety procedures."

One employee at the plant, Patricia Borges, 50, a machine operator, said she probably would not have survived the blast if she hadn’t fallen into a vat of liquid chocolate that put out the flames burning her, the Associated Press said last year. She said she and others had complained about a gas odor about a half hour before the explosion.

Some of the employees told investigators they smelled a natural gas or rotten egg odor, and said it was “kind of an everyone run for your life situation.” Employees yelled at others to get out, but many reported that they couldn’t recall if there was an official evacuation odor.

The company’s CEO and another employee said they smelled gas in a stairwell right before the explosion.

For nearly a year, the NTSB has also been investigating the explosion. Earlier this week, the agency made its investigatory material public, sharing it on its website. The information includes 151 entries, ranging from interviews with public officials and Palmer leadership, to lists of chemicals that were in the building at the time, to fire drill records. Previously, the NTSB had said the explosion was due to a leak in a fitting on an out-of-use natural gas service line. The preliminary report, NTSB’s second, blamed a fitting known as a service tee for the leak.

The service tee, the agency said, was installed in 1982 and retired by UGI Utilities in 2021 when the building’s natural gas meter was relocated. However, the tee continued to be connected to the natural gas system at full pressure and appears to have developed cracks that leaked the natural gas, the report said. While the report did not say what could have ignited the gas leak, it said it was possible the tee was located near a steam line, a condensate line and several heated chocolate pipelines.

The NTSB investigation also found that Palmer’s emergency preparedness plan did not include natural gas emergencies.

The company released a statement after the NTSB released its documents.

"Everyone here at the R M Palmer Company LLC have always taken the health and safety of all our employees and our community very seriously. We will always remember those affected as we move forward,” the company said. “Our Plant Manager, our Vice President of Human Resources in charge of safety, and our senior maintenance mechanic along with supportive staff lost their lives responding to a report of an odor outside one of our buildings. They showed tremendous courage responding to the scene, putting the interest of others before their own. They did not run from the incident; they ran to the incident. They, along with our other teammates paid the ultimate price responding to a confusing situation.”

The company said it had fully cooperated with the NTSB and all other governmental agencies in investigating the cause of the incident and that it believes “openness and transparency are critical to finding the root cause as we continue to advocate for local and national solutions to prevent a tragic accident like this one from happening to anyone else in the future.”

The R.M. Palmer Company has previously contested OSHA’s citations saying it believed they were legally and factually unsupported, and called the remarks by OSHA’s Chambers “inflammatory, callous and irresponsible.”

“R.M. Palmer stands by its safety program and policies and has already contested the OSHA citations in this matter,” the company said. “The company disputes each of the citations and contends that the agency had no basis to issue these citations as stated.”

OSHA proposed more than $44,400 in penalties for not evacuating the plant, not providing clearly marked emergency exit signs, and improperly splicing cords, as well as making several record-keeping violations.

In business since 1948, the company has about 850 employees, and had about $250 million in revenues in 2023. The company estimated there were about 35 office staff members and 70 factory employees inside of the site’s two buildings at the time of the blast.

The N.T.S.B. is expected to complete its investigation “likely sometime next year,” according to R.M. Palmer, which said it was continuing to cooperate with the inquiry.

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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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