UCI Fire Damage Less Than Feared


A morning of anxiety turned to an afternoon of relief Tuesday as UC Irvine professors and graduate students learned that a dramatic laboratory explosion and fire the day before had not caused the devastation researchers had feared.

"It was amazing how little damage there was considering how massive the fire was," said Nathan Allen, a graduate student who worked in the second-floor lab in Frederick Reines Hall, a building full of laboratories and offices devoted to chemistry, biology and other physical sciences.

Chancellor Ralph Cicerone, who had moved his atmospheric science research project into the first floor of Reines Hall a couple of weeks ago, called the lack of damage "miraculous."

Graduate student Cy Fujimoto, whose experiment exploded Monday, setting off the fire, suffered second-degree burns to his face, ears, arms and right leg. The doctoral student, 28, was listed in good condition Tuesday at the UC Irvine Regional Burn Center in Orange.

Dr. Marianne Cinat, co-director of the burn center, said Fujimoto might need skin grafts and could be hospitalized for as long as two weeks. A second graduate student in the laboratory at the time was uninjured.

Cicerone said Tuesday that the campus will look into whether sprinklers should be installed in Reines Hall. Only the basement is now equipped with sprinklers.

The building remained closed Tuesday, but firefighters borrowed a camera from a TV crew to explore the wreckage during a half-hour walk through Reines Hall and showed the video to professors and graduate students.

"You might characterize it as just a messed-up research laboratory," said Ron Stern, dean of physical sciences.

UC Irvine officials did not have a dollar estimate of the damage.

Flames leaping out the window Monday gave the appearance of a raging blaze. But firefighters said Tuesday that most of the fire blew through the window, causing much less damage than expected, even to the laboratory involved. By Tuesday afternoon, fire officials had completed their inspections and turned control of the building over to the university.

Professor William Evans, whose lab went up in flames when the experiment blew up, said only half the lab was damaged. "I was amazed how much of the lab was intact," he said.

The damage was contained in the laboratory, measuring 15 by 30 feet, and a couple of smaller rooms next door, said David Tomcheck, associate vice chancellor for administrative and business services.

Authorities were worried that the hazardous chemicals in the lab had spilled in the blaze and had contaminated the area. But the video showed most chemicals had stayed in their containers.

"That's going to cut down our cleanup efforts considerably," said Capt. Kirk Summers of the Orange County Fire Authority.

Some hazardous materials did escape, and firefighters and technicians from the Orange County Health Care Agency were checking the fire water runoff in the first-floor and basement for contamination, Summer said.

Because of the danger of chemical contamination, firefighters limited the amount of water they used, Summer said.

Still to be answered was whether the 10 graduate students who work in the lab where the explosion occurred had lost years of research and might have to redo their experiments. Students are cautioned to make copies of research and store them away from the originals.

Evans said that while many lab notes and records were lost, they were largely inconsequential in nature.

Doctoral candidate Jason Brady said he has backup data at home. "It definitely sets us back a little bit, but it's nothing we can't recover from," he said.

Graduate student Allen said although his computer was damaged by water, only a chapter of his dissertation was lost. He said he had memorized most of the chapter and the rest of his dissertation had been published.

"Have you ever dumped a glass of water on a computer while it's still running?" asked Allen good-naturedly. "That's what happened. My laptop got sopped. Water and computers don't mix."

Tuesday started on a worried note as nervous students and staff waited outside Reines for word of the damage.

They gathered in clusters, exchanging bits of news or rumors, wondering whether damage from fire, smoke and water had destroyed research conducted throughout the building.

By mid-afternoon, after viewing the videotape and talking to Hazmat and fire crews who had seen the damage firsthand, their fears gave way to a relieved celebration as they shook hands, smiled broadly and patted one another on the back.

They shared stories of items amazingly unscorched by fire: a box of tissues, jars of chemicals.

Evans and his graduate students were studying uses for the metal lathanide, once used in leaded gasoline and now used to create the spark in cigarette lighters.

The fire began in the second--floor lab about 4 p.m. Monday when Fujimoto was purifying benzene for an experiment. A tube connected to the still malfunctioned, UC Irvine spokesman Tom Vasich said. One of the volatile chemicals reacted with oxygen and exploded, he said.

Cicerone said Fujimoto's use of safety goggles "may have saved his eyes."

Evans described the chemicals that he and his students work with as highly reactive to water and oxygen. He said the large glove boxes that contain the chemicals are like incubators and only hands with three pairs of gloves touch them. These chemicals were on the opposite side of the lab from where the fire did the most damage.

Reines Hall was opened in 1990, constructed under building codes that did not require sprinklers, said Rebekah Gladson, campus architect. If a similar building were constructed today, sprinklers would be required, she said.

Gladson said the building's walls and doors were built to keep fire at bay for an hour or two. As a result, she said, the fire didn't break through.

Cicerone acknowledged that there is disagreement at UC Irvine on what course of action to take regarding sprinklers. Some campus officials advocate having sprinklers installed in every part of the building; others feel sprinklers aren't the best solution for a building that contains so many potentially dangerous chemicals that could react with or be spread by water. "We will take everything into account," he said. "We would include sprinklers in some areas but not all. Water is not the right material to extinguish all fires."

When older buildings are renovated, they are brought up to code, Gladson said.

While firefighters would prefer all buildings have sprinklers, Summers said, he would not criticize the building construction, since it was built to code and kept the fire contained to a small area.

"It was a well-designed, well-constructed building," he said. "It did what it was supposed to do."


Times staff writers Dennis McLellan and Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report.


Taking Stock After the Fire

Despite firefighters fears, most of the chemicals in the UC Irvine lab that exploded Monday had not escaped their containers. What was in the lab:

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