2 victims identified following West Reading chocolate factory explosion; 7 people killed

"We were smelling gas in the building right before the explosion," recalled one R.M. Palmer Company worker.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023
2 victims identified following chocolate factory explosion
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Officials have identified two of the victims who were found dead following the devastating explosion at the R.M. Palmer Company in West Reading, Pennsylvania.

WEST READING, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Officials have identified two of the victims who were found dead following the devastating explosion at the R.M. Palmer Company in West Reading, Pennsylvania.

The victims have been identified as Amy Sandoe, 49, of Ephrata, and Domingo Cruz, 60, of Reading, according to the coroner's office.

People who knew and loved Cruz describe him as a loving soul who adored his family.

Christine Leonhardt says, "He had tremendous, strong family ties. I would imagine that there is sorrow in their household."

Amy Sandoe (left) and Domingo Cruz (right) were both killed in the explosion at R.M. Palmer Company on March 24, 2023.

In total, the March 24 explosion claimed seven lives. The additional five victims have not been identified at this time.

During a briefing on Monday, officials revealed 10 other victims were injured in the blast and taken to Reading Hospital.

According to Dr. Charles Barbera, 10 patients were treated in the ER, two were admitted to the hospital and one person was transferred to the burn unit. Eight of the victims have since been sent home.

West Reading Police Chief Wayne Holben confirmed the search and rescue efforts have concluded and all individuals have been accounted for.

"The focus shifts on the daunting task of cleaning up the aftermath. The cleanup process has begun, which is expected to be a difficult and lengthy process. It will involve the removal of debris, clearing the area and making sure that buildings are safe to occupy," said Holben.

'I think I smell gas'

Witnesses reported hearing an explosion coming from the candy factory, then saw flames shortly after.

"We were smelling gas in the building right before the explosion. Somebody said, 'Yea, I think I smell gas.' And right after that, everything started getting nuts with explosions. The floors were rippling from all the explosion blasts, and things were just falling off the ceiling," said Bradley White, a maintenance engineer for R.M. Palmer.

White was in the factory's "Building One" when "Building Two" exploded.

"There was a lot of screaming. A lot of crying. Everyone got different reactions. I'm still in shock," added fellow employee Xavier Tolentino.

Kristen Wisniewski lives three blocks from the local and well-known chocolate company.

"It was the loudest thing I've ever heard in my life," she said. "It literally felt like the ground fell out from underneath you. The whole house shook and my dogs froze, they couldn't move. It was scary."


Officials say one person was found alive and pulled from the rubble overnight Saturday.

"During the overnight hours one person was located alive and rescue workers continue to search for any other possible survivors," Chief of Police Wayne Holben stated on Saturday.

Action News has learned the survivor is a woman who worked on the second floor of the factory. She was found in the basement sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.

She was found when rescuers began yelling, "This is the fire department, is anyone there?"

The woman was taken to the hospital after spending approximately eight hours in the rubble. There is no word yet on her current condition or her identity.


The damage in West Reading is extensive. Officials say RM Palmer Building #2 is destroyed and there's damage at the neighboring Palmer Building #1.

"It's pretty leveled, unfortunately, there's not too much to be able to salvage from it," said West Reading Mayor Samantha Kaag. "In the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward."

There has been no official word on the cause of this blast, including whether it was caused by a gas leak.

A spokesperson for UGI Utilities said crews were brought in after damage from the blast led to the release of gas that was helping to feed the four-alarm fire that erupted after the explosion.

"We did not receive any calls regarding a gas leak or gas order prior to the incident, but we are cooperating with the investigation and part of that will be to check all our facilities in the vicinity," UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope said Saturday.

Philip Wert, vice president of the West Reading council, said the building had been constructed in the late 1950s or early 1960s.


Many in the community, such as volunteer groups in Berks County, have also pledged their support in helping those impacted by the explosion.

"I've never been more proud of Berks County, I've never been more proud of West Reading. We really did come together as a family and a community," noted Kaag.

Nonprofit groups in Berks County raised over $24,000, which will be donated to victims, their families and others in the community impacted by the explosion.

The White House and other state and local agencies have extended a hand to the Berks County community during this difficult time.


Mayor Kaag says South 2nd Avenue between Franklin Street and Penn Avenue will remain closed indefinitely as the investigation continues.

Several buildings near the blast site will be condemned until they can be inspected and deemed safe.

"There will be three buildings condemned around the current site, which is just a precaution as we move into the investigation phase to figure out what caused this and how we can prevent anything from happening like this in the future," said Kaag. "This doesn't mean they are slated for demolition or uninhabitable -- simply that there will still be work happening around them as we proceed, and we'll need to look at further by structural engineers before being released."