Explosion, Fire Shake UCI Lab,
Injuring Three
July 24, 2001

UC Irvine fire
 

Building housing a nuclear reactor is evacuated.

By DAVID HALDANE and SCOTT MARTELLE, TIMES STAFF WRITERS

(source:  LA Times - 7July25) more:   link to Chem Incident Report Center 

Fire at UC Irvine  An explosion and fire ripped through a UC Irvine chemistry lab Monday, injuring a researcher and forcing evacuation of two buildings, authorities said.

Two firefighters were taken to hospitals for treatment of heat exhaustion, a fire official said.

Three Hazmat teams and 100 firefighters from four departments responded to the incident, which happened just before 4 p.m. in a second-floor lab in Frederick Reines Hall. Three windows were blown out and fire spread to an adjacent lab, said Dennis Shell, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority. Firefighters also reported flames on the building's fourth floor, but the extent of that damage was not immediately known, he said. A building next door with a nuclear reactor in its basement was evacuated as a precaution, Shell said. "We wanted to protect all exposures," he said.

A university spokesman said the explosion happened as a graduate student purified benzene in a solvent purification still. The residue of the purification process, metallic sodium, apparently caught fire, causing the explosion, spokesman Tom Vasich said.

The injured graduate student, Cy Fujimoto, 28, of Irvine, was admitted to UCI Medical Center's burn unit with second-degree burns on his hands, arms and face, Vasich said.

"He was wearing protective goggles, so there was no eye damage," Vasich said. "He was alert enough to walk out of the building." Kim Pine, a spokeswoman for UCI Medical Center, described the student's condition as stable. "They didn't seem to be real serious burns," she said, "but serious enough to be admitted to the burn unit. His vital signs are stable and his breathing is OK, and that's what they look for."  Firefighters used 30 pieces of equipment to contain the blaze in about 2 1/2 hours. Because of the chemicals in the labs, the concrete Reines Hall, built in 1989, does not have a sprinkler system, Vasich said.  "Water wouldn't work with the chemicals they have in there," he said."The reason there aren't sprinklers is because they wouldn't have put the fire out."

The lack of sprinklers as well as the variety of experiments being conducted in the building and the gas lines in some of the laboratories proved daunting to firefighters. "The concrete held the heat," Shell said. "The firefighters took a beating inside the structure, with the amount of heat and black, acrid smoke."

The injured firefighters are Mike Long, 41, a 15-year veteran of the Orange County Fire Authority, and Bob Need, 55, a reserve firefighter, said fire department spokesman Kurt Summers.

The blast gutted the laboratory of professor William J. Evans, officials said. Evans' team of researchers has been exploring the synthesis of polymers and other topics, according to a Web site maintained by his team. Evans could not be reached for comment.

Lance Pfeifer, a postdoctoral chemistry student, said he was in the lab about five minutes before the explosion and spoke with one of the lab technicians moments afterward. He confirmed that the lab team was using sodium to purify benzene and that the explosion appeared to have occurred when the sodium was removed too quickly, sparking a flash that touched off the flammable benzene.He said he felt the explosion on the fourth floor.

"I knew it had to be big," he said. "I thought someone had died."

Steve Govek, 27, a graduate student in chemistry, was working in a nearby lab. "I heard a huge explosion and quickly exited the building," he said. "We checked to see if it was on our floor. When we saw that it wasn't, we left."

Guillaume Belanger, another postdoctoral student, said he also felt the blast.

"If you hear a big bang like that in a chemistry lab, you get nervous pretty quickly," he said.

Reines Hall is one of five physical sciences buildings clustered around the Physical Sciences Court at UCI. It was named for UCI professor emeritus Frederick Reines, a 1995 Nobel Prize winner for his research on neutrinos. The building is home to UCI's Physics and Astronomy Department and a wide range of high-tech--and high-priced--equipment, including the Aeneas supercomputer.

The extent of damage to that equipment was unknown late Monday, officials said. Firefighters and Hazmat personnel were expected to spend most of the night in the building. Students will not be allowed to reenter until Wednesday at the earliest.


Times staff writers Jason Song and Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report