PHOTOS BY SAM ZARKY
Junior Sam Kersten was diligently working on his final project for his machine shop adjunct when he realized that everyone else in the Olin basement had vanished.
He looked up from making beverage coasters to an ominous sight.
“I had not been paying attention to anything that was going on and it just looked like a curtain had been drawn,” Kersten said. “It was just a wall of white gas coming towards us.”
A hazardous materials incident at Olin Hall following an explosion sent 13 injured people, including Kersten, to the hospital for evaluation at about 3 p.m. on Wednesday. Two people were admitted with serious respiratory problems, according to Sunny Smaldino, a Colorado Springs Fire Department spokeswoman.
While 12 people have been released, one Colorado College employee remained in serious condition Thursday night, suffering from inhalation-related injuries. The college did not release his name.
The explosion happened in the basement of the building where students from the Physical Chemistry II class were working with titanium tetrachloride, according to Nick Koch, a senior who is in the class but was upstairs when the explosion occurred. The substance is highly unstable, and students were drilling into a pressurized container to obtain the substance.
When it comes into contact with humid air, titanium tetrachloride can react violently. A reaction occurred that released hydrogen chloride and titanium dioxide in gas form. Both Olin and Barnes Halls were immediately evacuated.
Kersten was one of the last people to leave the impacted area, and he could see smoking clothing on those who had come into contact with the gas. A professor and two students immediately ran up to the emergency showers after the reaction occurred, he said.
“The scariest part — its a little surreal that it happened — just seeing my professor in the hospital and everything,” Kersten said. “Just seeing him go through that, because you could tell he was in a lot of pain.”
Though not hurt, Kersten was hospitalized and evaluated over several hours. School administrators visited with him during that time.
“A kid came up sprinting to the fire showers,” said Faith D’Amico, junior, who was in an upper level of the building when the explosion occurred. She said the student who came into the classroom had burns on his eyebrows and back, but that once the shower was deployed, the burns went away.
Those sent to the hospital included students, staff, and Campus Safety officers.
“As is the college’s practice, a full review of the incident, response, and communications is under way,” the Office of Communications said in an all-campus email. “Any further information about the incident will be sent by Communications.”
The school says it is offering counseling through Boettcher Health Center, as always, for those who are interested.
Students in the cadaver lab in the basement of the building reported seeing smoke and hearing a loud explosion. They said they saw multiple people taken away by ambulance.
“We were in the cadaver lab and sirens went off,” said Sara Robbins, senior.
Steve Burt, a faculty member who oversees the machine shop, was supervising activity in the room, according to students on-scene.
Campus safety officers and CSPD Officer Jason Newton reached Olin Hall within minutes.
At least three fire trucks and a half dozen ambulances were also on scene. Media organizations from the Springs, including TV and print outlets, swarmed campus.
Officials roped off areas near Arthur House and Mathias Hall that were still unsafe. Firemen could be seen holding a red blanket and working behind it.
As of 5 p.m. that day, fire officials had dispatched a mobile command center and set up portable shower stations on Nevada Ave. Some firemen were examining backpacks and other belongings on the sidewalk.
“…Both Olin and Barnes have been evacuated,” the college said in an all-campus email. “Emergency personnel are on the scene and they ask that people do not reenter the buildings until a follow-up message goes out that all is clear. We will provide more information later.”
The explosion and ensuing chaos happened just hours after a test of the emergency mass notification system. The system was deployed again after the explosion, saying, “This is not a drill.” Some students told The Catalyst they were confused when sirens sounded in Olin because they thought it was just a continuation of the earlier drill.
A city bus was also brought to the scene, but an official could not immediately say why, though firefighters were gathered inside of it.
By 8 p.m. on Wednesday, the buildings were deemed safe and students were allowed to return to collect their belongings. On Thursday morning, Kersten returned to the machine shop to continue work on his project and many classes continued on as planned.
“It’s normal,” Lynn Froetscher, junior, said of the contaminated area on Thursday. “[It’s] weird, like nothing happened.”