UH lab explosion an 'accident,' Honolulu Fire Department says

UH lab explosion an 'accident,' Honolulu Fire Department says 10pm
Air tank before the explosion (Image: Jian Yu)
Air tank before the explosion (Image: Jian Yu)
Air tank after the explosion (Image: Honolulu Fire Department)
Air tank after the explosion (Image: Honolulu Fire Department)
(Image: Honolulu Fire Department)
(Image: Honolulu Fire Department)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Honolulu Fire Department says a University of Hawaii laboratory explosion that cost a visiting researcher an arm was an accident.

A 32-page report released Monday said 29-year-old Thea Ekins-Coward was conducting an experiment on March 16th that mixed compressed hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen detonated inside a portable air tank.

Fire investigators said the explosion occurred after the Ekins-Coward turned off a digital pressure gauge she was using to check the pressure in the tank. The gauge was not designed to be in a flammable gaseous atmosphere.

"The pressure gauge was responsible for the leakage of gas that was ignited by a spark from the switch," said HFD Battalion Chief Terry Seelig.

The report stated Ekins-Coward bought all the equipment for the experiment -- including the tank, the gauge, pressure relieve valve and fittings.  She assembled the tank herself and ran several practice tests prior to the March 16th explosion. Leaks were detected and the tank was taken to the school's maintenance.

The reports states a few days before the blast, Ekins-Coward conducted a separate experiment with a smaller tank filled with the same mix of gases. There was small internal explosion, but that was never reported to the school.

"Apparently, it wasn't enough energy or significance to cause any damage or harm," said Seelig.

In the report, Ekins-Coward also told her lab professor that she occasionally got shocked when touching the air tank, but was told not to worry about it.

"This was a wake up call not just for the University of Hawaii but for labs across the country and we've been in communication with a lot of universities regarding what happened," said UH Spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl.

Ekins-Coward told investigators she'd been doing this type of experiment for a while. The day of the explosion however, was the first time she used the portable air tank to mix the gases.

As a result of the explosion, UH has formed a new Chemical and Physical Safety Committee to identify and implement stronger protocols in furthering the safety of laboratories.

The lab remains closed while the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety conducts an independent investigation.

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