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U. Texas Austin Chemistry Fire

from REM April 97 Newsletter

One morning in October 1996, a postdoctoral research associate in the chemistry department at Welch Hall poured what he thought was a completely quenched sodium/alcohol mixture into his fifth floor lab sink. A "tiny amount" of sodium caught fire, as sodium does when exposed to water and air. Ethanol being extremely flammable, there was immediately a "small" fire in the sink.

The postdoc attempted to relocate a glass container of acetone that was in the sink, but accidentally broke it into the sink. Now there was a rather large fire in the sink. The lab staff closed the door and called 911. A passerby finally pulled a fire alarm, but since the building had separate alarm systems, quite a number of people were unaware of the fire well after it was on its way to doing $300,000 worth of damage. It took 90 firefighters with 25 fire engines six hours to finish it off.

Miraculously, no one was hurt! The real hooha started a day or two after the fire, when the City Fire Chief (UTA has no campus fire department), remarked that he would be "hesitant" to send firefighters into the Welch building again if there were another fire. He noted too many life-threatening problems with chemical storage and labeling, and was hesitant to expose his firefighters.

Why is it still news? The story continues interestingly. The city of Austin gave the University a November 15 deadline to begin fire safety improvements. The Fire Chief was quoted by the Texas Daily as saying "The Fire Department cannot accept the suggestion that this grievous track record must be tolerated to support high quality academic research." (The grievous record included four previous fires in 31 months, although none nearly as serious as this last one.)

In mid-November, UTA announced a $14.6 million fire safety renovation project promising additional exits in laboratories, chemical storage cabinets and a sprinkler system on the fourth and fifth floors. This figure had risen to $24 million by mid-January, after "recalculating the fire's damage and adding the cost of renovations." A 1/27/97 headline in the WebTexan announced Welch improvements delaying $53 million in other renovations.

What can we learn from this? For one thing, it's real easy to have a devastating little mishap. For another, safety is an odd business. We spend incredible time and effort working to prevent things that almost never happen. BUT! This doesn't mean we couldn't have a "silly, contrived, catastrophic incident" here. All it takes is a little lapse, a little mishap in the wrong place at the wrong time.