Fire department calls Hawaii lab explosion an accident

AP News
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Posted: Apr 18, 2016 10:56 PM
Fire department calls Hawaii lab explosion an accident

HONOLULU (AP) — A visiting researcher who lost an arm last month in a laboratory explosion at the University of Hawaii told fire investigators the blast occurred after she turned off a digital pressure gauge she was using to check the pressure in a gas cylinder.

A report released by the Honolulu Fire Department on Monday said the researcher told investigators she didn't hear gas leaking before the explosion. Photos in the report showed torn pieces of a metal gas cylinder sitting on a floor strewn with debris.

Compressed hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen detonated inside an air tank in the laboratory, fire investigators said in their report. Fire investigators concluded the blast was an accident.

The school has hired the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety to investigate. School spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said more details about the explosion would become known when this probe is completed, which he said was expected by the end of the month.

Fire investigators say the body of the gauge is missing, but Meisenzahl said the school knows the make and model of the gauge. He said it's not a question of whether this particular gauge was faulty but whether the gauge was being appropriately used.

The researcher told fire investigators a small internal explosion occurred earlier in the same week when she conducted a similar experiment using a smaller air tank assembly nearly identical to the one that failed. This experiment also used similar components, the fire department's report said.

Fire Battalion Chief Terry Seelig said that explosion was not reported to the university.

The researcher told investigators she would get shocked on occasion when touching the tank. She reported this to the professor who hired her to conduct research into bioplastics and biofuels, but he told her not to worry about it.

Meisenzahl said it's not clear whether the static shock events were related to the explosion, but they are part of the overall investigation.

The laboratory is part of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute on the school's flagship Manoa campus.

The university has said the explosion occurred when the researcher was growing cells by feeding them a mixture of low-pressure hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen.