During an afternoon lab on Wednesday, April 10, students from the Physical Chemistry II class were drilling into a pressurized container to extract titanium tetrachloride (TlCl4), when an abrupt explosion released the hazardous chemical into the air. Upon release of the gas, Olin shop supervisor, Steve Burt, accidentally inhaled some of the gas, and needed emergency medical attention.
Luckily, a fellow staff member was nearby to dial 911. Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD) arrived on the scene within minutes to field the response and relieve the Campus Safety officers who were already at the site. After extensive examination, Burt is safely back on campus.
Campus Safety did the preliminary check through the building to ensure that everyone was evacuated from both Olin and Barnes Science Center. Because the accident occurred shortly after an all-campus safety drill, some individuals believed the second alarm to be a continuation of the initial drill.
CC officials notified anyone inside to leave immediately, and searched for injured parties. One Campus Safety responder tended to Burt, while the others reported to CSFD about which students may have been exposed to the chemical.
Now, three weeks later, the internal investigation continues with Denise Sheridan, Environmental Health and Safety Officer, and Campus Safety. “We are just gathering information from all involved to be sure that we have the full picture of the incident,” Campus Safety Director Pat Cunningham said, “It [the internal investigation] may be complete next week.”
The Chemistry Department faculty had no comments about the ongoing investigation, but did express the potential harm that could have resulted from exposure to the TlCl4. Chemical supply companies provide Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) with product information and emergency overviews.
The MSDS for TlCl4 cautions that it “may be fatal if inhaled. The material is extremely destructive to the tissue of the mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract, eyes, and skin.”
Biology Professor Jim Ebersole was on the fourth floor of Olin when the chemical was released. “I didn’t smell or see anything connected with the accident,” Ebersole said, “After a moment, to see whether it was a false alarm, we walked out.”
Despite the fact that 13 people were sent to the hospital, no one sustained any serious injuries. “Back to normal in this department. I know nothing about the investigation,” Ebersole said.
Reflecting on the school’s quick response to the incident, Cunningham emphasizes how efficiently CC staff members collaborated with CSFD officials. “We understood the fire department’s role in managing the incident and there was a smooth transition when the site was ready to be released back to CC,” Cunningham said.
The majority of professors did not suspend classes the day after the accident, and all classes are operating as scheduled for Block 8.
“I haven’t noticed any changes, but that doesn’t really apply to my professors since we’re not dealing directly with chemicals,” Ross Calhoun, junior Biology major and rising terpsichorean, said. “All of my professors have always followed protocol; I feel totally safe, and that kind of thing is really a freak accident.”
Overall, students seem to share this perspective and do not express any fears about returning to Olin despite the accident. “I feel safe in Olin. The accident was an error, a mistake. The only danger is using certain chemicals or equipment that you don’t know how to use,” junior Leo Stout said.
“What happened was really quite a rare occurrence. When you are taking a lab class with noxious chemicals, there are risks, but most often, that just makes students, professors, and assistants hyper-sensitive and aware of those risks,” junior Chrissy Maruyama said.
According to Cunningham, Campus Safety has already worked with CSFD to internally critique the incident, and they are still developing the after-action reports. Once they have interviewed all involved parties, Campus Safety, along with Environmental Health and Safety staff will present a comprehensive report to President Tiefenthaler and her cabinet.
CC staff members were crucial in maintaining communication to outside authorities, the student body, and the media, as new information was uncovered. “Safety officers have responded to a number of alarm activations and work closely with both CSPD and CSFD in responding to incidents.
No modifications have been made to safety procedures in response to this accident, but Cunningham assures students that any necessary changes will be implemented right away upon completion of the investigation.
“A key finding is that we need more education and emphasis on the importance of evacuating a building when an alarm sounds, as well as [knowing] which systems are involved in a test of the mass notification system and which are not,” Cunningham said, “An important thing to note is that when a building alarm sounds, all must evacuate, even if it’s during a drill.”