Researcher loses arm in UH lab explosion; blast cause not yet known

Researcher loses arm in UH lab explosion; cause not yet known
Published: Mar. 16, 2016 at 11:36 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 18, 2016 at 5:07 PM HST
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Damage to the wall caused by the blast (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Damage to the wall caused by the blast (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Damage to the wall caused by the blast (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Damage to the wall caused by the blast (Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Officials say the 29-year-old researcher seriously injured in an explosion at a University of Hawaii lab Wednesday was conducting a routine experiment and handling relatively stable compounds when something went very wrong.

"Something happened out of the ordinary and we don't know what that is yet," Brian Taylor, dean of UH-Manoa's School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, told reporters at a news conference Thursday.

Post-doctoral fellow Thea Ekins-Coward lost an arm and suffered other injuries in the explosion, which happened about 6 p.m. Wednesday in a basement lab at the Pacific Ocean Sciences and Technology Building.

On Thursday, engineers determined the building where the explosion occurred remains structurally sound, and employees and students will be allowed to return Friday.

The university is reviewing its protocols and safety procedures in the wake of the explosion, and reaching out to experts nationally for assistance on the investigation.

Ekins-Coward was conducting a routine experiment -- something that had been done every day since 2008 -- when the explosion happened in the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute lab, UH officials said. They said she was working with hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

People nearby who heard the explosion weren't sure what it was.

"It felt like something huge that was dropped on the floor. It was unusually loud," said teaching assistant Stacy Takeshita.

Gerald Lau, who was in his third floor office in the Pacific Ocean and Science Building, said it "sounded like a big thud."

Lau said employees and students started to check the building to make sure everyone was OK. "That's when one of our students came up from the bottom from the ground floor and said someone was hurt and there was an explosion in the basement," he said.

Two Department of Public Safety officers and a graduate student rushed to get the young woman out of the lab. "We're extremely grateful to those first three responders who acted so quickly," Taylor said.

The university's chancellor said the labs are inspected annually, and that the lab in question passed an evaluation in January.

Meanwhile, Ekins-Coward had been through both general and specific safety training, officials said.

The postdoctoral fellow at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute studies biodiesel and energy uses for microalgae, her Google Scholar biography says.

Ekins-Coward joined UH in October 2015. She got her doctoral degree from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, and has also studied at Swansea University.

On Thursday, the Honolulu Fire Department issued a preliminary damage estimate of $1 million, but officials said the amount could change based on the university's assessment of damaged equipment.

"The walls are broken, the ceiling tiles are dismantled, and tables are broken," said Honolulu Fire Department Battalion Chief Geoffrey Chang, who called the explosion "pretty big."

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