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West Reading chocolate factory explosion a year later: A tragic day

In an instant, it was gone.

A few minutes before 5 p.m. on March 24, 2023, a loud boom rocked West Reading. It was the sound of an explosion — later determined to be caused by a natural gas leak — at the R.M. Palmer Co. chocolate factory in the first block of South Second Avenue.

The blast was sudden and devastating. It reduced the brick and steel factory building to rubble in a flash, took the lives of seven men and women working inside and injured several others.

Xiorky D. Nunez, 20, Reading; Susan H. Halvonik, 63, Upper Providence Township, Montgomery County; Michael D. Breedy, 62, Marion Township; Diana M. Cedeno, 44, Reading; Judith Lopez-Moran, 55, Reading; Amy Sandoe, 49, Ephrata; and Domingo Cruz, 60, Reading were killed.

Shortly after the fatal explosion at what Palmer called Building 2, the National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation into its cause.

In July, the agency released an updated preliminary report that said a leak in a fitting on an out-of-use natural gas service line appeared to be the source of blast.

The preliminary report — the second the NTSB has so far issued — blamed cracks in a fitting known as a service tee for causing a leak that led to the fatal explosion. The service tee had been retired in 2021 but remained connected to the natural gas system, the report said.

The NTSB investigation is ongoing, but in February the agency shared with the public its docket of investigatory material. Published on the agency’s website, the docket includes more than 150 entries ranging from maintenance reports to fire drill records to lists of chemicals that were in the building.

It incudes transcripts from dozens of interviews NTSB investigators conducted in the days and weeks following the blast with public and Palmer officials, company workers, emergency responders and others. Many of the interviews feature stories from people who were on the scene that day.

To mark the anniversary of the explosion, the Reading Eagle is sharing parts of some of those firsthand accounts of the tragic events.

The miraculous survivor

Patricia Borges was working on the first floor of the plant the day of the explosion, cleaning a chocolate tank.

She began to smell gas and asked coworker Judith Lopez-Moran, if she smelled it, too.

“Judy said, ‘Yes Patricia, I smell that, too,’” Borges recalled. “And I said to her, ‘Hopefully, they send us home.’”

Borges said she reported the smell to her superiors and noticed some of them appeared to be investigating it near the entrance of the building, where it was strongest.

Unsure of what to do — she said she had no training on what to do if she smelled a natural gas leak — Borges and her coworkers continued to clean. They chatted about what they would have to do if they were ordered to evacuate the plant.

And then, the building exploded.

Borges said the blast collapsed the ceiling of the first floor, sending bricks and steel and everything that was on the second floor crashing down on her and her coworkers.

The room filled with smoke, she said, and fires began to break out. She was trapped underneath some metal, and her arm caught fire.

“I was praying to God that, please, I don’t want it to be my death, to be burned in that place,” she told investigators.

Just a few moments after the ceiling collapsed, the floor gave way, Borges said.

“The first floor, that collapsed, and it fell down to the basement where there were some other chocolate tanks,” she said. “I fell in one of the chocolate tanks.”

The liquid chocolate put out the flames on Borges’ arm. She stood in it for a while, she said, protecting herself from being reignited by the fires spreading through the rubble.

In the fall, Borges broke both of her heels and her clavicle.

At some point she was forced to climb out of the tank — a difficult task given her injuries — because the level of chocolate was rising.

“I had to jump from the chocolate tank, to stay there in the water of the basement for nine hours,” she said. “I stayed there until 2 a.m. with my broken bones and broken legs.”

For much of that time, Borges said, everything was dark and cold.

Rescuers eventually found Borges and pulled her from the rubble. She was the only person inside the plant at the time of the explosion to survive.

A narrow escape

March 24, 2023, started out as a day like many others in Max Baxter’s life.

“Everything seemed normal,” he said.

A truck driver for H.R. Ewell Inc., he arrived at Palmer with a tanker truck full of chocolate at 4:10 p.m. It was something he has done pretty much every day — and sometimes two or three times a day — for the past 15 years.

He was parked between Building 2 and Building 1, which sits just across Cherry Street to the south of Building 2.

His truck got hooked up to unload his haul into a tank at Building 1, and he hopped back into the cab to relax. He told investigators that earlier in the week he had noticed his truck was leaking a little oil, and as he was sitting in his truck he thought he smelled it again.

So he jumped out and began sniffing, quickly realizing he wasn’t smelling hot oil. So he started walking toward Building 2, where he saw two Palmer employees outside.

One of the employees, Michael Breedy yelled over to him as he approached, asking if he smelled something. Baxter said that Breedy asked if it smelled like raw sewage or methane, and Baxter replied that it wasn’t either of those.

“It’s something I never smelled before,” he told investigators, adding that it was breezy outside, which made it tough to get a good whiff.

Breedy and the other employee, Susan Halvonik, then went into the basement of Building 2 to further investigate.

Baxter said he saw something on the side of Building 2 — he didn’t know if it was a gas meter or some sort of regulator — that appeared to be spewing gas.

“Like a can of Freon or something, just open it and just — it looked like steam,” he said.

Baxter turned to walk back to his truck, but before he got there he saw a flash and heard a boom. He was knocked off his feet and tossed against Building 1.

As he landed, he was buried by rubble.

“I said the easiest way to explain it is it happened just like you see on TV,” he told investigators. “There’s a big fireball and more of a pow than a bang. And then by the time I hit the ground, then I could feel the bricks coming down on top of me. I could see smoke until I got covered.”

Baxter said that as he was pinned beneath the rubble, he felt something cool on his legs. He believes it was gas because it ignited, burning his skin.

Rescuers reached Baxter fairly quickly. He said he felt water from fire hoses and could hear bricks being removed.

At one point, he said, he could feel the rescue workers breaking apart a large piece of debris just above his head.

When the rescuers reached him, they put a strap under his arms to pull him out, Baxter said. As he was being taken to an awaiting ambulance, he asked how long he had been buried.

They told him about 20 minutes.

Baxter was taken to Reading Hospital for treatment.

An unclear emergency

William T. Runyeon was tasked with getting the 48,000 pounds of chocolate inside Baxter’s tanker into Palmer’s tanks.

A chocolate unloader for the company, he started the unloading process shortly after the truck arrived just after 4 p.m. But Baxter’s haul was too big to fit into the tank at Building 1, he said, so he was going to have to unload about 4,000 pounds into a tank in Building 2.

While the chocolate was streaming into the tank at Building 1, he headed next door to Building 2. He spoke to an employee there, informing her about his plan.

Then he walked back to Building 1 and headed inside. A moment or two later, the explosion happened.

“The first thing I heard was it sounded like the same sort of sound you would hear from a skid dropping on the above floor,” he told investigators. “The whole ceiling undulated and dust fell down for the length of it. And it was funny because I swear it covered me, but by the time I got outside I don’t remember being covered in dust.”

Runyeon said someone yelled that there was a fire, so he grabbed a fire extinguisher, turned off a pump so the room didn’t fill with chocolate and ran outside.

He gathered with other employees in a parking lot. He said he couldn’t see Building 2, only smoke that appeared to be coming off Building 1’s roof.

“I figured out, well, maybe it was the compressor, that makes sense because I thought it was coming from our roof at first,” he said. “And then everyone else came out and we heard about Building 2 and that was that.”

Confusion and panic

Jose Andujar was doing what he did every day at work on March 24, 2023.

A mechanic for Palmer, he started his shift that day at 3 p.m. There was plenty for him to do, with the main roller on one of the machines needing to be replaced.

He was on the third floor of Building 1 working on that project just before 5 p.m. That’s when a coworker, returning to the line after taking a break, asked him if he smelled gas.

He told her that he didn’t smell anything, and she told him to take off the mask he was wearing. As he removed it, he heard a loud noise that shook the building.

“And that’s when the explosion happened,” he said. “We didn’t know at that time what happened. I just saw the floor going up and down.”

Andujar said he told a fellow mechanic and a group of nearby employees — all of whom had been knocked to the ground by the blast — to run.

Andujar began to run, too. But before he left the building, he picked up a phone connected to a public address system in the building — called a “gray phone” by Palmer employees — and shouted into it.

“So I told — I said — the only thing I could say was, like: ‘Get out of the building, get out of the building. Everybody get out of the building,’” he said.

A sudden jolt

Palmer CEO Mark Schlott was meeting with members of his sales team on the afternoon of March 24.

They were on the the third floor of Building 1 when his receptionist informed him that someone had reported a strange smell outside of Building 2.

He headed down the stairs to aid in the investigation, he said. In the stairwell, he was hit with a strong odor of natural gas.

“I hit the door open, I took a couple steps down, and I went oh, my God, that’s natural (gas),” he said. “And that’s when the explosion hit. So, I was thrown around pretty good.”

Schlott said he recognized the smell as soon as it hit his nose.

“I mean, it was a massive amount of natural gas in that stairwell to the point where I’m, in retrospect, I’m surprised we didn’t have a bigger issue,” he said.

The scene at Penn Avenue and South Second Avenue in West Reading after an explosion at the R.M. Palmer Co. chocolate plant March 24. Two lawmakers who represent Berks County in Congress are looking to eliminate the kind of piping that investigators say led to the blast. (Courtesy of Ben Hasty)
The scene at Penn Avenue and South Second Avenue in West Reading after an explosion at the R.M. Palmer Co. chocolate plant March 24. Two lawmakers who represent Berks County in Congress are looking to eliminate the kind of piping that investigators say led to the blast. (Courtesy of Ben Hasty)
Rescue workers probe the rubble March 25, the day after an explosion at the R. M. Palmer Company, 77 S. Second Ave., West Reading. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Rescue workers probe the rubble March 25, the day after anexplosion at the R. M. Palmer Company, 77 S. Second Ave., West Reading. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

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