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UH lab explosion seriously injures grad student, damages building


    Entrances to the Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building were barricaded at the University of Hawaii at Manoa today.


    Firefighters investigate an explosion in a basement laboratory at University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The University of Hawaii Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building will reopen tomorrow after a structural engineer deemed the building safe following an explosion in the basement laboratory that seriously injured a researcher Wednesday.

A 29-year-old visiting researcher suffered arm injuries and possible facial burns, and was hospitalized in serious condition.

Fire officials said the researcher was mixing gases when the explosion, possibly from a compressed gas cylinder, occurred.

The blast damaged walls and tables and dismantled ceiling tiles.

University officials canceled classes held in the building today and closed the structure to students, faculty and staff while officials conducted an assessment.

The researcher was alone in the lab, which is part of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute on the school’s flagship Manoa campus. Other students and security guards in the basement pulled her out of the lab and she was able to walk out of the building.

The lab focuses on renewable energy and degradable bioplastics.

The researcher was growing cells by feeding them a mixture of low-pressure hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen, said Brian Taylor, the dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. The same process has been used almost daily and without incident since the project began in 2008, he said.

“Clearly something unexplained happened last night,” Taylor said.

Investigators are seeking a cause.

The blast blew out interior walls, damaged ceiling tiles and equipment, said Honolulu Fire Department Capt. David Jenkins.

The building was evacuated. Taylor said an engineer assessed the structural integrity of the building and found it to be sound. The university aims to reopen the building on Friday, though the lab where the explosion occurred will remain closed.

The institute has launched a comprehensive safety review of all their lab operations because of the explosion, Taylor said. The Manoa campus will work with national safety experts as they follow up, he said.

The researcher has worked at the lab for the past six months. She took the university’s general lab safety course and had training in the specific procedures used at the energy institute lab, said Roy Takekawa, the campus’ director of environmental health and safety.

UH spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl said few classes are held there since the building mainly consists of laboratories, research facilities and offices.

Meisenzahl said all UH laboratories are inspected annually and are up to federal standards.

The university’s Manoa campus will begin a week-long spring break holiday on Monday.

Meisenzahl said counseling services will be available at the student center or by calling 956-7927.


The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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  • Gotta be Super Careful when mixing chemicals – especially for experiments – like that old rhyme:

    Little Willie was a Chemist,
    Little Willie is no More,
    What he thought was H2O,
    Was H2SO4 – – – – –

  • wow, talk about weird science.
    she is so lucky to survive that blast and I
    hope she gets better soon.

    those gas cylinders must be replaced by another
    type of containment.
    those things are like armed torpedoes.

    • Don’t blame the gas cylinders, blame faculty for total lack of supervision and training to insure the safety of their students by making sure the are properly trained and supervised in working with dangerous, flammable or explosive gases and chemicals. Guess would be this student was messing with hydrogen gas and a lot of it which can self ignite when in contact with oxygen. Either that or a gas like methane released in the lab either on purpose or by accident could have caused the massive explosion. No matter what there is no justification for this student to be alone and ‘experimenting’ with incredibly explosive gases in a lab that is not designed to handle such dangerous experiments. Was this UH graduate student’s thesis on how to make a better bomb for terrorists?

      • Maybe she decided to work in the lab without her adviser or instructor knowing. Let’s wait for the full story before placing blame on the someone who might not at fault. I hope she makes a full recovery.

      • inverse – It’s remarkable that you have analyzed the entire incident (while no one else has yet, of course) and determined that faculty is to blame. You certainly are a sleuth! And what better and more logical conclusion than that she’s a terrorist! Brilliant!

        • It’s been stated by the media that this individual was working “alone”. Solo. Without supervision, however you want to state it. Incredibly bad practice, especially at the University level. It’s going to cost us a great deal of money, and apparently almost cost this young woman her life.

  • Experiments do go awry! Comes with the turf. Having said that financial strapped UH must ask the State for additional funding at taxpayer expense as usual.

  • Hopefully she wasn’t trying to cook up some Meth in there. When you’re dealing with dangerous experiments, it’s best not to do them alone. Watching the show Mythbusters, those explosions can do a ton of damage to a human body similar to what you see with IED attacks in the middle east. Hope that lady pulls out OK, but she’s probably have some traumatic brain injury too in addition to the damage to her body and eardrums.

  • “Meisenzahl said all UH laboratories are expected annually and are up to federal standards.” You mean INSPECTED, right? Does anyone at the SA proof-read before you publish?

    • It’s the same reason a month ago the sub headline on the front page printed “Heath” instead of “Health”. Computer proofreaders and spell checkers are not infallible. However this discussion module called Word Press is doing a much better job that our previous “Comment has been sent for approval” boondoggle. Who cares though, when the dough keeps on rolling in.

    • Meisenzahl is the University’s public relations spin-doctor! Heʻll say anything to make UH look good (even if he has to lie)! The more the University sweeps this kind of catastrophe under the rug (and there have been plenty of them), the more the general public loses faith.

  • Sounds like an incident that the CSB (Chemical Safety Board) should look into. This would not be the first lab explosion they’ve investigated. They are very, very good at what they do.

  • “Meisenzahl said all UH laboratories are expected annually and are up to federal standards”. SA, shouldn’t that be “inspected”, not “expected”?

  • Meisenzahl said all UH laboratories are expected annually and are up to federal standards. 😉 I believe the word is “inspected” and not “expected”.

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