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UCI Fire Damage Less Than Feared

Accident: 'Miraculous,' says Chancellor Cicerone. Injured graduate student listed in good condition.

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 a couple of weeks ago, called the lack of damage "miraculous."

Graduate student Cy Fujimoto, whose experiment exploded Monday, setting off the fire, suffered second-degree burns to his face, ears, arms and right leg. The doctoral student, 28, was listed in good condition Tuesday at the UC Irvine Regional Burn Center in Orange.

Dr. Marianne Cinat, co-director of the burn center, said Fujimoto might need skin grafts and could be hospitalized for as long as two weeks. A second graduate student 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 now 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, dean of physical sciences.

UC Irvine officials did not have a dollar estimate 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, whose lab went up in flames when the experiment blew up, said only half the lab was damaged. "I was amazed how much of the lab was intact," he said.

The damage was contained in the laboratory, measuring 15 by 30 feet, and a couple of smaller rooms next door, 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 most chemicals had stayed in their containers.

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

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.

Because of the danger of chemical contamination, firefighters limited the amount of water they used, 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 while many lab notes and records were lost, they were largely inconsequential in nature.

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.

Graduate student Allen said 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 clusters, exchanging bits of news or rumors, wondering whether damage from fire, smoke and water had destroyed research conducted throughout the building.

By mid-afternoon, after viewing the videotape and talking to Hazmat and fire crews who had seen the damage firsthand, their fears gave way to a relieved celebration as they shook hands, smiled broadly and patted one another on the back.

They shared stories of items amazingly unscorched by fire: a box of tissues, jars of chemicals.

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.

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