The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report Tuesday detailing the initial findings of their investigation into the explosion that took place March 24, 2023 at the West Reading R.M. Palmer Company building #2.
In the month since the explosion, investigators from the NTSB have examined the accident site, collected evidence and interviewed R.M. Palmer employees and members of the public who were nearby at the time of the accident.
The report describes the explosion as “natural gas–fueled,” which destroyed Building #2, caused significant structural damage to Building #1 and other surrounding structures.
After hours of search and rescue efforts, 7 people were killed, 11 people were injured. In addition, 3 families were displaced from a neighboring apartment building and many more people were evacuated from the area.
According to the NTSB, at the time of the explosion, about 35 office staff and 70 production employees were working in both buildings. In postaccident interviews with investigators, Palmer employees from Building #2 recalled that they were sanitizing equipment in the building when they detected an odor of natural gas. The employees in Building #1 recalled the smell of rotten eggs around the same time.
After the explosion, emergency response units from the West Reading were joined by multiple emergency responders from adjoining communities to put out the fire and to conduct search and rescue efforts until the evening of March 26, when the last employee was accounted for.
UGI Corporation provided natural gas service to the Palmer buildings through two natural gas mains adjacent to the accident site.
According to the NTSB, one 4-inch-diameter steel main was located in front of Building #2 along South Second Avenue, and one 1.25-inch-diameter “Aldyl A” plastic main was located along Cherry Street between Buildings 1 and 2. The factory buildings had two natural gas pipeline meter sets regulated by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. UGI reported no known work in the area and no pressure spike in gas usage before the explosion.
The report states that future investigative activity will focus on reviewing collected evidence, identifying the source of the explosion, and related industry practices and federal regulations.
The investigation was assisted by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Pennsylvania State Police, the West Reading Police Department, the West Reading Fire Department, the Berks County Fire Marshal, Palmer, and UGI.
Damage costs are currently unknown.
View the full NTSB preliminary report here: https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/Pages/PLD23LR002.aspx