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Sodium’s violent reaction upon contact with water is illustrated in this file photo from a sodium drop incident in 2003.
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Five burn injuries from a boat fire on the Charles River last Thursday, Sept. 6, appear to have been caused by sodium, said Jake Wark, spokesperson for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. Local media sources reported that the substance may have come from a sodium drop, a traditional MIT activity in which sodium is thrown into the Charles River so that students can watch its violent reaction with water.

A volunteer cleanup crew was working on the edge of the Charles River Thursday afternoon when they “retrieved an 8-inch piece of taffy-like substance,” Wark said.

The crew, volunteers for the Charles River Cleanup Boat, then placed the sodium in a container with wet debris where it caught fire and exploded, Wark said.

“While further testing will be necessary for confirmation purposes,” Wark said, “initial analysis by State Police chemists indicates that the substance recovered yesterday was sodium metal.”

Two of the crew members suffered first- and second-degree burns, said Tom McNichol, president of the Charles River Cleanup Boat. McNichol said that one of the volunteers suffered burns on his face, arms, legs, and feet. “He’s very uncomfortable right now,” McNichol said. According to McNichol, three paramedics also suffered chemical burns while treating the volunteers. None of the injuries were life-threatening.

The Boston Globe reported that officials do not believe the sodium was placed along the river with the intention of causing harm.

The sodium was found on the Boston side of the Charles River near the Massachusetts Avenue bridge at approximately 2 p.m. McNichol said that his crew found the substance near the “granite steps by Gloucester Street.”

While local media sources, namely WBZ-TV News, have linked the incident to the sodium drop, it is unclear at this point whether the sodium is connected to MIT.

“State Police and fire officials are aware of sodium drops into the Charles River,” Wark said, “but how this substance got to the Boston side of the river remains under investigation.”

David Kaplar, managing editor of WBZ-TV News, said the station made the connection between Thursday’s explosion and MIT after a fire marshal at the scene informed WBZ-TV that “blocks of sodium” were responsible. “[We did a] Web search and put two-and-two together,” Kaplar said.

An Internet search for sodium and the Charles River returns numerous references to sodium drops, including photos of the events and references in official MIT Admissions blogs.

According to an article on the WBZ-TV Web site, television news producers “informed the fire marshal’s office about the ritual.”

The Globe reported Saturday that MIT students steal the sodium used in the drops from the school’s chemistry laboratories. MIT Police Chief John DiFava, however, said Friday that he has “never seen a report of stolen sodium.”

Pamela Dumas Serfes, spokesperson for the MIT News Office, said that “MIT is cooperating fully with appropriate authorities to establish the facts.”

Larry G. Benedict, dean for student life, said that “the state police are investigating,” but declined to elaborate. “I am quite disturbed that innocent bystanders got seriously injured,” said Benedict. Benedict would not comment on the future of the sodium drop tradition.

McNichol, however, said he hopes the sodium drop tradition will end.

“[The students] never realized that if a child had picked that up [they would have been severely hurt] … good thing, actually, that it was picked up by a pole with a net and not by hand,” McNichol said.

In addition to injuries suffered by his volunteer crew, McNichol’s boat was damaged in the ensuing fire. McNichol said that the crew is facing a substantial bill that they are unable to pay. “For the last four years, we’ve cleaned the river,” McNichol said. “This is a good thing that might get sunk.”

“My impression is that there is certainly a culpability for MIT,” McNichol said. “It’s up to the police and administration at MIT to address that.”

A video of the 2007 sodium drop, which took place a week before the boat fire incident, was posted by an MIT freshman on YouTube and later removed. For a mirror of the original, see http://www-tech.mit.edu/V127/N36/sodiumdrop/video.htm.

Michael McGraw-Herdeg contributed to the reporting of this article.