A cracked flask and a heating element caused a small explosion on the third floor of the Natural and Environmental Sciences building early Tuesday morning.
Gerald Rowland, a graduate student in chemistry, was working late in professor Jon Antilla’s lab, attempting to concentrate a liquid by heating it. According to Antilla, who took Rowland to the emergency room Tuesday morning, the glass container holding the compound broke and sparked a chemical fire.
Rowland, who has since been released from the hospital, suffered second-degree burns on his hands and abdomen. Rowland and his wife, Emily, were two of four chemistry graduate students working in the lab when the accident happened at approximately 1:15 a.m.
“I was in my lab,” said Matt Cross, who was working near Rowland. “I had my music up real loud, and I just heard the worst screams of my life. I ran over, and I saw black smoke just billowing out.”
After Rowland removed his flaming clothes, he ran screaming into the lab where Cross was.
“He came in yelling, his exact words were like, ‘Oh my god, the building’s going to blow up, get out of here, the building’s going to blow up,'” Cross said. “When a highly trained chemist comes running in saying that – you know what he knows, what’s in his own lab – so I felt the same thing.”
Cross followed Rowland and Emily out of the building to safety, but went back into the building to check for both a janitor and another student who had not come out. When he ran back toward the lab, he saw graduate student Julio Garay, who told him the fire was out.
Garay had used a fire extinguisher to put out the chemical fire after searching the lab for Rowland. Garay said he wasn’t thinking of saving the building when he used the extinguisher.
“There was smoke and everything, but I was just looking for (Rowland),” Garay said. “I know when some accidents happen you have to leave as soon as possible, but you have a relationship with the people – nobody needed help – you make the check first.”
After Garay and Cross exited the building, they ran into Antilla and the local fire department.
“The fireman didn’t want to go in there because of all the chemicals and stuff. They were sitting there like, ‘Uhhhh,'” Antilla said.
Led by Cross, the fire department eventually went into the building, which was air-dried and cleared for use on Wednesday. Because the fire activated sprinklers in the lab, equipment that remained intact had extensive water damage. One piece of equipment, a High Pressure Liquid Chromotography (HPLC) machine – which Antilla valued at $35,000 – was damaged by the sprinkler system.
Even though Antilla wasn’t familiar with the exact experiment Rowland was working on, he said it wasn’t an exceptionally dangerous one.
“This is a very basic thing,” said Antilla, whom Rowland has been doing research with for three years. “It’s just the warming of a solvent. What he’s doing with that – I think – is just adding that warm solvent to another reaction vessel or something. It’s just a normal procedural thing, kind of.”
Chemistry chair Mike Zaworotko said the compound mixture of dichloromethane and ether can be dangerous, but it isn’t anything to worry about.
“Most organic chemicals are kind of like gasoline,” Zaworotko said. “You use them every day. Most of the time they are innocuous, but every now and then things can go out of control.”
According to Zaworotko, students are often in the lab late at night, which helped the situation stay under control.
“There were several other people around at the same time,” Zaworotko said. “There were at least three other people in close proximity who helped him both in terms of the injury and putting the fire out.”
Antilla added that some students actually prefer the early hours.
“There’s a few – three or four of them up there are kind of more night birds,” said Antilla, adding that Rowland said he had a nap before working and that fatigue wasn’t a factor.
Despite Rowland’s insistence that he was rested and the rarity of the accident, Antilla said there might be some changes in the chemistry lab soon.
“I am in fact going to have a new rule – at midnight, you got to clear it out,” Antilla said. “Because it’s lab work, it’s not like sitting at your computer where you can screw up something.”