How I Nearly Killed Myself

I teased this recently, and said I’d tell the tale. I have told it several times in my life, and still feel stupid while doing so, but maybe if I tell it here I’ll keep someone from doing themselves in. It can be a cautionary tale for others, and it’s a mystery to me why I wasn’t taken to meet my maker that night.

It’s 1988 or so, I’m getting a Masters’ degree (because getting a real job is too stultifying, and school I’m good at). My degree is in Life Science (biology) but my meager student income flows from being a paid lab rat for the Organic Chem department. (Those with significant O-chem experience are already cringing: keep reading, it’s worse than you think). The Professor I worked for was developing a new synthesis of a known structure, and my job was to make it happen. I was not the brains of this operation.

I was, however, the guy who was reasonably good with bench chemistry (in the day, I’d be lost now) and could be trusted to follow instructions and get to get a multi-step process right, over and over. As I’d been doing this for about a year, I was both trusted in the lab and overconfident in my abilities. (For fun, keep track of the safety lapses that follow).

Friday night, alone in the lab; I’ve gotten comfortable using ether as my solvent for this operation and it’s about 8:30 PM in a completely abandoned lab on the 4th (top) floor of a very empty building. The research lab is a room in the back: 8 feet wide, 12 feet long, with a door on one end, a hood on the other end, and a sink on the counter that runs from one end to the other on one side. The hood never turns off (and it’s good to have it on for ventilation in the little room anyway), the sink is important because it’s the source of suction for my major colleague in chemistry, above it being 2.5 gallon carboys of deionized water and acetone (both used to clean glassware). The shelves over the bench are covered with the typical assortment of obscure reagents, there’s paper stacked neatly on the bench. Oh, and there’s a Farrah poster on the back wall held up with black string from the drop-ceiling metal. It’s not mine, but it makes for something more fun to look at than brown gooey chemicals.

The sink suction was necessary to help my Rotovap work (have a look; it’s astonishingly ingenious) and is light-years better than the standard O-chem distillers. It can do in minutes what would take an hour in a regular, non-suction distilled evaporator, which is why I used it. Running water across a venturi makes a nice vacuum, the whole reagent end of the business spins, the diluent comes off like a shot, what’s not to like?

I’d discovered ether came off very quickly, unless it came off so quickly the reagent vessel started to frost over, then it finished very slowly. Being a problem solver the answer was easy: heat it (gently) with a shallow vessel of water on a hot plate.

That was what I was doing, standing rather dumbly in front of a rotovap doing its thing, wishing it would hurry up, when the ground glass joint holding my experiment to the machine popped off. Reagent and ether diluent bubbling into the hot water, I started to curse, seeing 8 hours of work being hydrolyzed.

That’s when the hot plate clicked on and the room instantly burst into flame. The entire countertop from door to hood was a fireball, to the ceiling, and over the top. I sensed more than recognized the fire was rolling over my head; the heat flash was impressive, and not really appreciated until later. Heat, light, and a flight reflex I’ve never had before or since: this is hard-wired, required no input from me, and maybe saved my life.

I ran. I ran faster than I have before or since. Carl Lewis could not have caught me for the next 200 feet, running through the hall to the stairs at the end. Some rationality returned at the doors, and I thought, then said aloud to no one, “I just set the lab on fire”, my legs carrying me back to the scene of my crime against chemistry and safety.

Fire extinguishers are ubiquitous in chem labs, so I got one reflexively on my way to the little room where I’d nearly bought it, but was much more worried about burning the building down at the time. There was a fire in the water under the rotovap, and one short shot of the extinguisher put it out nicely. The paper on the end of the counter was aflame, and the fire extinguisher shot made them into a thousand burning embers flying through the air independently. Phoo.

I’d started to tremble a bit, and realized I should get help, just in case. I walked out to our dedicated hotline to the security department, picked it up and declared the following: “I’m GruntDoc, I’ve just had an explosion and fire in the chemistry lab. The fire is out but I think I need some help”, and hung up. (I found out later I scared years off the dispatcher, who called the University Policeman on duty).

The University Officer I’d been a Boy Scout with, and he said when he got up the stairs my hair was still smoldering. That’s when I took stock, and found that, indeed, the hair on the top of my head had been pretty well singed, but no other injuries. We looked around a bit, decided the building wouldn’t burn down tonight, and he left me to clean up.

While rectifying my mistake I found the following: little burned pieces of filter paper are harder to clean up than you’d think, the rotovap knob was fused to the machine body, the plumbing insulation overhead was burned, and Farrah’s strings had burned through, dumping her unceremoniously onto the floor. Then I looked at the 2.5 gallons of Acetone, and wondered why it hadn’t ignited. If it had, in that confined space, I would have been horribly burned at best, most likely I’d have been killed.

I really think there was a divine intervention for me that night. I wonder why: is there a Big Moment for me someday, or was it just pity for being so stupid all at once? I’ll never know for sure. I hope.

That many safety errors are a firing offense, so I expected at least that, and maybe to expelled on Monday when the Prof got back. I went in prepared for the worst, and got the following: ‘Did you learn something?’ Yes. ‘Still want to work?’. Yes. ‘Okay.’ I finished the project, the degree, and went on to bigger and better things.

I hope I wasn’t spared just to blog. That’d be silly.


What GruntDoc forgot to include, is my involvement in this escapade, one of our BIG encounters.

I was a Lab tech at said University, and had been somewhere, dressed up and anyway, I was wearing a skirt and blouse that fateful day.  Very unusual for me to be dressed up.

Had a call from University police that there had been a fire in the lab.  I went up to the school and set out our big fans, to vent out the place.

I had a few comments from the staff, mostly the cop’s but including the stressed out dispatcher, that I looked like a girl.   I usually wore jeans and a tee shirt to work.

GruntDoc had been in my office many a time to reorder centrifuge tubes, to this day, I don’t know how he broke so many tubes or if he claimed them broken so he could come to my desk to reorder…anyway…

At any rate, that was my first real lasting impression of the GruntDoc.   Fire,.. Farrah burnt to a crisp and how mad would Dr. Rob… on Monday?    GD was right, Dr Rob..wasn’t that mad.

I didn’t get a raise for going above and beyond the call of duty, but I did finally marry the hero of the story.