The Massachusetts State Police continue to investigate last week’s Charles River accident involving a block of sodium. No suspects have yet been named in the investigation, and MIT has only been associated with the event by Boston media sources who speculate that the traditional East Campus sodium drop caused the injuries.
It has become increasingly apparent, however, that the well-known East Campus drop may not be responsible for the incident.
A volunteer crew cleaning the Charles River last Thursday, Sept. 6, picked up a block of sodium near the Boston side of the Harvard Bridge and threw it into a container with other debris. The sodium then exploded, thermally and chemically burning two volunteers. Three paramedics responding to the explosion suffered chemical burns.
Jake Wark, spokesperson for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, said that the police are continuing to investigate the source of the sodium block, which was found near the granite steps at Gloucester Street, approximately 350 meters east from the Boston end of the Harvard Bridge.
Wark would not comment on specifics of the investigation but stressed that MIT had not been identified as a focus of the investigation. “At this point, we have not named anyone,” said Wark. “The media has made those conclusions.”
The East Campus drop took place this year at the 620-meter long Harvard Bridge in the early morning hours of Friday, Aug. 31, according to a sophomore who attended the event. That would leave roughly six-and-a-half days for the sodium to remain unreacted.
In past years, the East Campus drop has taken place on the Longfellow Bridge. This year, the venue may have changed due to construction on the Longfellow.
The sodium was thrown from “maybe 150 smoots in [roughly 250 meters]” and was closer to the Cambridge side than the Boston Side, said the sophomore attendee. “The audience was stationed along [the bridge] and Memorial Drive,” the student said.
The sophomore did not observe any sodium chunks traveling toward the Boston shore.
The Tech was unable to reach organizers of the East Campus sodium drop for comment.
While most students associate the idea of a sodium drop with the East Campus drop, in past years, there have been multiple sodium drops by a variety of groups.
Most notably, the fraternity Tau Epsilon Phi has previously dropped both sodium and potassium into the Charles River.
According to a participant in some of TEP’s rush events, the fraternity planned a drop this year for early Monday morning on Sept. 3, 2007 approximately three-and-a-half days before the incident. The participant said it was possible the drop had been delayed.
This year, TEP may have dropped sodium into the Charles River. “I heard many people say [sodium], but I don’t know if … that was just a way of saying some Group I metal,” wrote the participant in an e-mail.
A male individual who answered the TEP house phone declined to personally comment on the matter. The Tech was unable to reach other house members for comment.
MIT Police Chief John DiFava said that the investigation was out of the hands of the MIT Police and that state police were in charge of the matter.
Asked about possible fraternity involvement, Senior Associate Dean for Students Barbara A. Baker said that MIT would wait for the Massachusetts State Police investigation to finish. “Right now, it’s a police matter,” Baker said.
Baker would not comment on the culpability of organizers of a sodium drop or of bystanders at the event. “We’re waiting for information … but we’re very concerned about safety — anything that jeopardizes safety … or impacts the environment,” Baker said.
David Deegan of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the agency was aware of the sodium fire but declined to comment as to whether an EPA investigation was ongoing.
Joe Ferson, media contact for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, said that the department was aware of sodium drops and was not investigating further. MassDEP “determined that [the sodium] was below reportable quantities,” Ferson said. Section 311 of the Clean Water Act defines reportable quantities of sodium as those exceeding 10 pounds (roughly 4.5 kg).