Water Valves Left Open : Ether Removal Sets Off Whittier College Flood

Times Staff Writer

Small quantities of a potentially hazardous and explosive chemical were discovered and safely removed from a science building at Whittier College last week.

But the removal and disposal of several metal containers of ethyl ether was not without incident.

While firefighters--wearing fireproof suits and air masks--collected the ethyl ether from a laboratory on the fifth floor of the building, several water lines that had been pressurized as a safety precaution flooded a handful of offices and classrooms. The water spewed from valves that nobody had realized were open, authorities said.

Although water damage was reported on all but the fifth floor and several computers were soaked, damage was relatively minor, campus officials said. No damage estimate was available.


The ether was found Tuesday by Los Angeles County fire inspectors during an annual inspection of the college’s science laboratories.

Chemical Had Gone Bad

Inside a fireproof locker where a variety of flammable and dangerous chemicals are routinely stored, inspectors discovered a five-gallon container holding liquid ether that had gone bad, said county fire Capt. John Janzen.

“The ether had crystallized and become unstable,” said Janzen, a member of the county’s Fire Prevention and Safety Unit. “Once in that condition, it is extremely volatile.”


Because the campus was closed for the holidays and the chemicals were secure in the locker, fire officials decided it was safe to leave them there until the following day when they could return with removal equipment.

On Wednesday, the fire department’s Hazardous Materials Unit and the sheriff’s Arson and Explosives Detail returned to the campus. There were six containers of ether present with varying quantities of the chemical, Janzen said.

Lowered From the Roof

It took nearly six hours for the team of experts to package and then lower the ether by rope from the roof of the building to a reinforced hazardous-waste trailer. Officials then took the chemical to a Whittier landfill where it was detonated.

During the operation, several firefighters stood watch with fire hoses. A special paramedic helicopter was also on the scene in case of an emergency.

The science building, where several teachers were finishing work for the just-completed fall semester, was evacuated for most of the day.

Chemistry professor Gerald Adams said it was the first time in his 15 years at the college that such measures had to be taken to remove a chemical. He said ether is commonly used in organic chemistry experiments, often as a solvent to separate various compounds.

Flooding in the building occurred when firefighters pressurized the building’s internal pipe system as a precaution while the highly flammable chemical was removed, said Capt. Richard Freymond of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.


But several of the system’s hydrant valves on the third and fourth floors were open, Freymond said. So when the emergency water lines were filled, about 1,000 gallons of water spilled into the hallways and then seeped through to offices and classrooms below.

College officials believe the valves may have been open for years, possibly tampered with by students as a prank. Normally kept empty, the water lines are used only in case of emergency.

“We were darn lucky we didn’t lose a lot more,” said Dallas Rhodes, a geology professor who feared most for the college’s valuable Fairchild Aerial Photography Collection located on the second floor. It was not damaged.

The Geology Department was hardest hit. Several computers were soaked in the department’s office and research materials, including some valuable slides, were damaged, Rhodes said.

Chemical Storage Problems

Besides the ether, Janzen said the inspection turned up a series of chemical storage problems at the college.

“There were a number of leaking and improperly stored chemicals in that lab,” Janzen said. “While this is of concern to us, and certainly poses a health threat to anyone unfamiliar with the situation, it is not all that uncommon today.”

As public awareness grows about toxic waste and chemicals, Janzen said, his department is finding more and more cases of improperly stored chemicals.


Last spring, the college contracted with a private firm to dispose of 18 drums of potentially hazardous chemicals in central California, said Donald Stewart, the college’s director of communications.