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Explosion in UC Irvine Science Lab Caused Less Damage Than Feared

Accident: Given the intense flames, the lack of destruction was miraculous, officials say. The chemist who was burned in experiment may need skin grafts.

July 25, 2001|JEFF GOTTLIEB and ANA BEATRIZ CHOLO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A morning of anxiety turned to an afternoon of relief Tuesday as UC Irvine professors and graduate students learned that a dramatic laboratory explosion and fire the day before had not caused the devastation researchers had feared.

"It was amazing how little damage there was considering how massive the fire was," said Nathan Allen, a graduate student who worked in the second-floor lab in Frederick Reines Hall, a building full of laboratories and offices devoted to chemistry, biology and other physical sciences.

Chancellor Ralph Cicerone, who had moved his atmospheric science research project into the first floor of Reines Hall several weeks ago, called the lack of severe damage miraculous.

Still, graduate student Cy Fujimoto, whose experiment exploded Monday, setting off the fire, suffered second-degree burns to his face, ears, arms and lower right leg. The 28-year-old doctoral student, who lives in campus housing, was listed in good condition Tuesday at the UC Irvine Regional Burn Center in Orange, although he might need skin grafts and is expected to be hospitalized for up to two weeks. A second graduate student who was in the laboratory at the time was uninjured.

Cicerone said Tuesday that the campus will look into whether sprinklers should be installed in Reines Hall. Only the basement is equipped with sprinklers.

The building remained closed Tuesday, but firefighters borrowed a camera from a TV crew to explore the wreckage during a half-hour walk through Reines Hall and showed the video to professors and graduate students.

"You might characterize it as just a messed-up research laboratory," said Ron Stern, the dean of physical sciences.

UC Irvine officials did not have an estimate of the cost of the damage.

Flames leaping out the window Monday gave the appearance of a raging blaze. But firefighters said Tuesday that most of the fire blew through the window, causing much less damage than expected, even to the laboratory involved. By Tuesday afternoon, fire officials had completed their inspections and turned control of the building over to the university.

Professor William Evans said only half his lab was damaged when Fujimoto's experiment exploded there. "I was amazed how much of the lab was intact," he said.

A couple of smaller rooms next door also were damaged, said David Tomcheck, associate vice chancellor for administrative and business services.

Authorities were worried that the hazardous chemicals in the lab had spilled in the blaze and had contaminated the area. But the video showed that most chemicals were still in their containers.

"That's going to cut down our cleanup efforts considerably," said Capt. Kirk Summers of the Orange County Fire Department.

Some hazardous materials did escape, and firefighters and technicians from the Orange County Health Care Agency were checking the fire water runoff in the first floor and basement for contamination, Summer said.

Still to be answered was whether the 10 graduate students who work in the lab where the explosion occurred had lost years of research and might have to redo their experiments. Students are cautioned to make copies of research and store them away from the originals.

Evans said that many lab notes and records were lost but they were largely inconsequential.

Doctoral candidate Jason Brady said he has backup data at home. "It definitely sets us back a little bit, but it's nothing we can't recover from," he said.

Allen said that although his computer was damaged by water, only a chapter of his dissertation was lost. He said he had memorized most of the chapter and the rest of his dissertation had been published.

"Have you ever dumped a glass of water on a computer while it's still running?" asked Allen good-naturedly. "That's what happened. My laptop got sopped. Water and computers don't mix."

Tuesday started on a worried note as nervous students and staff waited outside Reines for word of the damage.

They gathered in small clusters, exchanging tiny bits of news or rumors, wondering whether research conducted throughout the building had been damaged.

By midafternoon, after viewing the videotape and talking to emergency crews, their fears gave way to a celebration as they shook hands, smiled broadly and patted one another on the back.

Evans and his graduate students were studying uses for the metal lathanide, once used in leaded gasoline and now used to create the spark in cigarette lighters.

The fire began in the second-floor lab about 4 p.m. Monday when Fujimoto was purifying benzene for an experiment. A tube connected to the still malfunctioned, said UC Irvine spokesman Tom Vasich. One of the volatile chemicals reacted with oxygen and exploded, he said.

Cicerone said Fujimoto's use of safety goggles "may have saved his eyes."

Evans described the chemicals that he and his students work with as highly reactive to water and oxygen. He said the large glove boxes that contain the chemicals are like incubators, and only hands with three pairs of gloves touch them. Those chemicals were on the opposite side of the lab, where the fire did the most damage.

Reines Hall was opened in 1990, and was constructed under building codes that did not require sprinklers, said Rebekah Gladson, campus architect. If a similar building were constructed today, sprinklers would be required, she said.

Times staff writers Dennis McLellan and Kimi Yoshino contributed to this story.

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