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UH lab explosion sparked by improper gauge

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    Firefighters responded to an explosion March 16 at UH-Manoa’s Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building.


    An explosion on March 16 at the University of Hawaii laboratory severely injured a graduate student while mixing gases.


    An explosion on March 16 at the University of Hawaii laboratory severely injured a graduate student while mixing gases.

A powerful explosion at a University of Hawaii science lab was likely caused by a digital pressure gauge that shouldn’t have been used around flammable gases, the Honolulu Fire Department said today.

The probable cause of the explosion at the Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building on March 16 was a detonation of compressed gases sparked by a digital pressure gauge within a portable tank that was not designed for that use.

The fire department classified the blast as accidental.

Visiting researcher Thea Ekins-Coward, who was alone in the basement laboratory when the explosion occurred, lost an arm in the blast.

At approximately 5:51 p.m., Ekins-Coward, 29, a post-doctoral fellow, was working with a mixture of low-pressure hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen when the portable metal cylinder the gases were contained in blew up. The lab is operated by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute.

In the fire department’s report released today, investigators indicated a portable gas cylinder was the point of origin of the blast. An electrical arc/spark occurred from a digital pressure gauge.

“The accidental cause of this explosion was caused by the detonation of compressed gasses to include: hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen within the air tank. A digital pressure gauge used to check the pressure within the tank was not rated or designed (not intrinsically safe) to be in a flammable gaseous atmosphere,” the report said. “When the OFF button was pressed, an electrical arc/spark created within the gauge detonated the flammable gas within the tank causing the explosion.”

The university has retained the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety to conduct an independent investigation into the blast. The three-member team is expected to complete their investigation by the end of April.

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      • Nowadays, no administrator who is incompetent at UH gets fired! Look at the VC for Academic Affairs. He has a vote of no confidence from the faculty senate and a grievance filed by numerous faculty members alleging bullying and other unacceptable behaviors. UH’s response? He got a pay raise!

  • Working with compressed hydrogen and oxygen is no joke. While not directly stated in the article, it sounds like this setup may have been the normal one used in the lab. If so, the responsible UH staff should be investigated for charges, and the people involved in setting up the system should be prohibited from operating compressed gas systems in the future.

    • This is an easy one. Unbelievable the going ons up the KazU.Professors getting free sex, grad assistants getting blown up, TMT, chancellors of CC getting high salaries, corrupt Foundation, no money to fix the campus, lousy football team, Cancer center bankrupt, tuition increase and now a multi million dollar lawsuit. Can’t blame this one on the Mayor. He has enough problems. Makes me sick to my stomach.

        • Lespark speaks the truth though! UH needs a serious cleaning out! Lassner has turned out to be totaaly inevfective, spineless and quite an ingrate! All the politics and sex and carrying ons! Did the graduate student know what the hell he was doing?

      • Any wonder why the mayor, the board of education chair/ former HART chair and the union boss parents of former councilman Chang all sent their kids to mainland colleges, preferably Ivy league schools. You would think with all the taxpayer monies UH spends on public relations employees and campaigns, they would have used some of that money to inspect the labs at UH BEFORE someone gets blown up Kinda late for UH to hire an ‘expert’ inspection team from California that will cost a hundred thousand dollars to determine the person in charge of the lab was ignorant and incompetent and expected someone else to know what was going on in the lab and whether their gas setup and delivery system was properly configured that met BASIC safety practices and procedures. Dobelle, MRC greenwood, Hinshaw, Carbone, BJ, Frasier, Chow, Von Appen, former UH lead attorney Lendio, Brian Minaai, former exec at Sandwich Isle Communications and now lead UH attorney, etc. etc..Only the ‘best of the best’ work at UH

        • PS: You definitely cannot blame the mayor, however you can directly blame the mayor’s wife and ex HGEA union boss Okata for having UH board of regents hire MRC Greenwood. UH Manoa is languishing because Uh funds are spread so thin propimg up the failed Cancer center, expensive Medical school and building an overly expensive community college feeder school at West Oahu. They NEVER would hire an ex military general that would hold people accountable and be fiscally responsible with UH money from taxpayers. They want a Pres like Greenwood and the current pres that does NOT have an independent thought and their only purpose is to beg for more State funds. This AVOIDABLE explosion at UH Manoa is a reflection of the true current state of the academic programs at the university of Hawaii; funds deprived at the student level lead to mishaps like this all the while their top adminstrators get pay raises while serving no useful purpose at UH.

      • TigerEye, We are looking alt the comments! A lot of truth resides in what you are calling trash! You either want to discount, turn a blind eye, or cover up! Bachmann Hall and Hawaii Hall need a serious cleaning out. And HPU needs to take a serious look at the Foundation official from UH that they have hired!

        • Well, there’s a lot of trash in the trash as well. The poor woman lost her arm in a lab accident that had zero to do with MRC Greenwood, Bachmann Hall, HPU or the price of yak butter.

          It’s amazing to me how many people will read an article about a tragic accident and the only thing they can think of is to free associate their way to the nearest pitchfork

  • Very sorry for the young researcher that lost her arm. A very unfortunate accident. But let’s wait for the results from the Cal Center for Laboratory Safety team before suggesting someone should be fired.

    • Excuse me. But don’t we have our own HIOSH with a Budget of millions of dollars to handle this accident? Or are you suggesting that our in house people are incompetent? We need accountability.

  • Why hasn’t it be said that if the gauge is within the container then how can there be enough oxygen to detonate the gas within the container?

    • I imagine that the digital gauge tapped a valve connected to the tank not unlike how common hand-held tire pressure gauges (both digital and analog) tap into a tire’s valve stem to read the tire pressure we’re all familiar with. There’s something to be said for old fashioned analog gauges when working around explosive atmospheres.

    • If the internal container was not air-tight there would be enough mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gas within the internal container to start the exothermic chemical chain reaction after getting triggered by the spark from the digital gauge. iIf this lab experiment was kept under a negative pressure environment such as a fan to draw air out of the lab this woman was working in to help keep the bottled oxygen and hydrogen gases released for this experiment from potentially building up in the lab AND an explosive gas detector alarm system, which online looks like it would cost under $10,000 including installation, the investigation results can only show negligence on the part of those in charge of running this lab. In court UH might try to blame the victim that she or someone else not a part of UH installed the electonic gauge without getting permission from UH officials in charge of the lab but that still does not absolve UH of not inspecting their own labs for safety issues, including not having an explosive gas detector that is readily available and not that expensive.

    • They will,say UH has no money because the legislature refused to provide necessary funding to pay for a safety team that checks for safety violations. Lassner and Vrey Froman will propose hiring a new UH adminstration department for safety and will tell the legislature they need 3 million more per year feom the State legislature to staff the new department. Not really trying to make a joke but you know the UH PR department will use this tragedy to try gain more tax dollar funding and make sure to NOT hold anyone accountable like getting some overseeing UH professor or administrator fired from their position for negligence and the resulting multi million dollar lawsuit this student will receive. The smoking gun slam dunk evidence her attorney will use is the fact a spark and small exlposion happened before when she used this switch, reported to an an administrator and they did NOTHING about it, telling her don’t worry about it, it was no big deal

  • It sounds like the state is going to get sued again. The incompetence at UH never ends, I wonder if anyone will be held responsible for this? Nah …of course not.

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