January 18, 2008

Building re-opens after minor chemical incident

by Pete Rosenbery and Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Officials at Southern Illinois University Carbondale re-opened a campus building this afternoon (Jan. 18) after a small chemical explosion damaged a storage cabinet there this morning.

No one was injured in the incident, which happened at Life Science II, a four-story classroom and laboratory building on the campus' west side. Building occupants pulled a manual fire alarm there following the incident, which occurred in room 158, a laboratory.

Officials are still trying to determine the cause of the incident, said Ami Ruffing, a researcher with SIUC's Center for Environmental Health and Safety. The storage cabinet contained approximately two gallons of chemicals including acetic acid, sulfuric acid and sodium salts. Researchers will investigate further to look for the cause, she said.

Brad Dillard, associate director of physical plant services at SIUC, said two students were in room 158 when they heard a noise coming from the cabinet. The students immediately left the room, closing the door behind them. One pulled the fire alarm at 9:05 a.m. after hearing a loud noise come from inside the room.

Dillard said the explosion damaged the doors of the storage cabinet and spilled chemicals.

Crews from the Carbondale Fire Department and Jackson County Ambulance Service responded to the alarm, along with SIUC police officers and workers from plant and service operations. Personnel from the Center for Environmental Health and Safety began assessing and cleaning up the site shortly after firefighters and campus police secured the scene.

Officials from the Office of the President and the College of Science also were on hand.

The building remained closed until about 12:30 p.m., with all classes there canceled during that time.

Despite the minor damage, University officials said they were pleased with the way campus and local authorities responded to the incident.

SIUC Public Safety Director Todd D. Sigler said public safety personnel sent five messages via the University's mass e-mail alert and relayed announcements over SIUC's emergency radio during the incident. The first message gave a brief description of the incident while subsequent updates described progress in mitigating the incident.

Sigler emphasized the importance of reacting to alarms. "It is essential that people adhere to the alarm," he said. "You cannot take the chance that this is a false alarm or mechanical malfunction."

Dillard said a new fire alarm system installed last year at Life Science II worked perfectly and immediately notified campus and local authorities. After it was evacuated, officials secured the building using remotely controlled door locks to prevent anyone from re-entering the building without permission.

"Those locks are mainly for after-hours security but they have this side benefit, as well," Dillard said.

Over the next few days, officials will thoroughly assess the effectiveness of the overall response to the incident, he said.