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Lab Fire Causes Limited Damage

Greg Kuhnen -- The Tech
Firefighters work to contain a fire Wednesday in Building 6 which started when fumes from a dropped bottle of hexane ignited.

By Douglas E. Heimburger
Editor in Chief

A solvent fire in a chemistry lab inBuilding 6 Wednesday closed much of main campus for several hours.

The fire began around 1:15 p.m. in Room 6-430 when a graduate student dropped a bottle containing about a liter of hexane about 10 centimeters, according to W. Gerald Diaz, director of the safety office.

The laboratory is used by students of Professor of Chemistry RichardR. Schrock. Two students were in the lab at the time; no one was hurt.

Hexane is a "standard, routine solvent"that is "similar to gasoline in flammability," said Rick L.Danheiser, professor of chemistry and chair of the department's safety committee.

After dropping the container, the graduate student threw several spill pillows on the liquid. Such pillows are designed to control substances like hexane by absorbing them. Those pillows are required in all labs, Danheiser said.

However, four pillows were not enough to control the fumes, and the fire started when they came into contact with an ignition source. "We suspect it was a drying oven"which was located close to the spill, Danheiser said.

Eyewitnesses said the fire gave off very thick, black smoke almost immediately. Those near the fire could not fight it because of the smoke, said AnnS. Jones G, who was standing in the hallway outside the lab when the fire began.

No one was hurt by the fire, which was contained by several Cambridge Fire pumper and ladder trucks. Most buildings reopened around 3 p.m. Tests conducted in the lab after the fire showed that the residual level of hexane was "well below dangerous levels,"Diaz said.

Extent of damage uncertain

Reports on the level of damage to the facilities have differed. Initially, reports said the lab was a "total loss,"according to Sarah Wright of the News Office.

However, reports yesterday indicated that direct damage to the lab was minimal, and that most damage was from smoke and water. "No valuable equipment was affected,"Danheiser said. In addition, no data was lost.

Damage was contained to the lab, which was scheduled to be renovated soon.

Danheiser said that the researcher did nothing wrong, and that he "would never criticize [him] for having a harmless accident."The fire occurred "in spite of his best efforts"to control the spill.

One possible safety problem with the lab, however, is that a possible ignition source was located close to stored flammable liquids, Diaz said.

Frank Dabek contributed to the reporting of this article.