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Deadly UCLA lab fire leaves haunting questions

March 01, 2009|Kim Christensen
  • Sheri Sangji celebrates her graduation from Pomona College in May with brother Hussain, mother Maimoona, father Shaukat and sister Naveen. Two months before Sangji was burned in a chemical fire, UCLA safety inspectors found more than a dozen deficiencies where she was working.
Sheri Sangji celebrates her graduation from Pomona College in May with…

UCLA's Molecular Sciences Building was mostly closed for the holidays on Dec. 29 as research assistant Sheri Sangji worked on an organic chemistry experiment.

Only three months into her job in the lab, the 23-year-old Pomona College graduate was using a plastic syringe to extract from a sealed container a small quantity of t-butyl lithium -- a chemical compound that ignites instantly when exposed to air.

As she withdrew the liquid, the syringe came apart in her hands, spewing flaming chemicals, according to a UCLA accident report. A flash fire set her clothing ablaze and spread second- and third-degree burns over 43% of her body.

Eighteen excruciating days later, Sangji died in a hospital burn unit.

"It is horrifying," said her sister Naveen, 26, a Harvard medical student. "Sheri wasn't out doing something stupid. She was working in a lab at one of the largest universities in the world. She gets these horrific injuries and loses her life to these injuries and we still don't know how it happened or why it wasn't prevented."

Sangji's death was more than a tragic workplace accident. It also raised serious questions about the university's attention to laboratory safety.

"It was totally preventable," said Neal Langerman, a San Diego consultant and former head of the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Health and Safety, whose members were given a detailed account of the incident by a University of California safety official.

"Poor training, poor technique, lack of supervision and improper method. This was just not the right way to transfer these things," Langerman said. "She died, didn't she? It speaks for itself."

Two months earlier, UCLA safety inspectors found more than a dozen deficiencies in the same lab, Molecular Sciences Room 4221, according to internal investigative and inspection reports reviewed by The Times. Among the findings: Employees were not wearing requisite protective lab coats, and flammable liquids and volatile chemicals were stored improperly.

Chemical Safety Officer Michael Wheatley sent the inspection report to the researcher who oversees the lab, professor Patrick Harran, as well as to the head of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department and a top UCLA safety official. The report directed that problems be fixed by Dec. 5.

But the required corrective action was not taken, records show, and on Dec. 29 all that stood between Sangji's torso and the fire that engulfed her was a highly flammable, synthetic sweater that fueled the flames.

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Under scrutiny

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating, as are the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. A spokeswoman for Cal/OSHA, the lead agency, said she could not comment on the investigation.

UCLA officials say they are cooperating with all of the agencies.

"We consider this a profoundly tragic accident, and the campus community is still reeling from the loss of Sheri as a member of the Bruin family," said Kevin Reed, vice chancellor for legal affairs.

Harran, the organic chemistry professor for whom Sangji worked, said he could not comment on the accident because of the pending investigations. But he said he's heartbroken.

"Words cannot convey my grief or that of those who work in my lab, and our pain cannot possibly compare with the immeasurable anguish felt by Sheri's family," he wrote in an e-mail. "Sheri's death is a tragedy that has left her friends, colleagues and co-workers here in our department devastated."

UCLA has launched a comprehensive review of lab safety protocols and has stepped up inspections and shortened the time allowed to correct serious violations. Chancellor Gene Block also established a campuswide lab safety committee and ordered enhanced accountability measures.

Such efforts are of little comfort to Sangji's family. Her parents, Shaukat Sangji, a small-business owner who lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Maimoona, a Montessori schoolteacher, were too distraught to be interviewed, said Naveen, who relayed an e-mail message to The Times from her father.

"They say time will heal, but I know for sure nothing can heal this," he said. "This has completely destroyed our lives forever."

Born and raised in Pakistan, Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji followed her older sister to Pomona College, a small, top-tier liberal arts school in Claremont, in 2003. Their parents and younger brother moved to Canada.

"Sheri always loved science and fell in love with chemistry," Naveen said, but she also was interested in the rights of women and immigrants, environmental policy and law. She decided to become an attorney, with an eye toward a career that would blend her interests.

"She was brilliant, just so impressive," her sister said.

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