Poor decisions and aging equipment were to blame for a chemical release in Olin Hall last semester that sent more than a dozen people to the hospital, an internal review by the college found.
“I just think it was a series of decisions along the way made by several different people that maybe weren’t the best decisions,” said Denise Sheridan, environmental health and safety coordinator.
The review, which lasted a week, involved interviews with all of those involved with or near to the release, and culminated after a number of meeting sessions and discussions among college officials.
On the afternoon of April 11 last spring, students working on a project as part of an independent physical chemistry project were attempting to open a glass container filled with titanium tetrachloride. The container’s lid was sealed shut, so the students brought the gas to the machine shop in the basement of Olin hall to drill into the canister.
Normally, titanium tetrachloride is just a liquid in a bottle, said Sheridan. However, the chemical was pressurized in the container and, over time, moisture had accumulated in the in the glass. When it comes in contact with any kind of moisture, titanium tetrachloride undergoes a chemical reaction producing gaseous titanium oxide — a harmless compound — and dangerous gaseous hydrochloric acid.
When the bottle was opened, the chemicals were released into the enclosed machine shop, according to Sheridan.
Campus Safety and local authorities immediately responded, and, in the aftermath, 13 people were sent to the hospital for observation, including students and staff.
All of those hospitalized were released within a few hours with the exception of one staff member who was admitted in serious condition and spent two days in the hospital recovering from the effects of inhaling the gas.
After taking a leave for a week and a half, that employee returned to work at the college.
The review found that the titanium tetrachloride was old, and the handling of the materials was improper.
A sweep of the chemistry department stock this summer found hundreds of similar containers, all of which were disposed of.
“It’s not that they were hazardous situations,” said Pat Cunningham, Director of Campus Safety, but the best practice was just to clean them up.
At the time of the release, the college was in the middle of examining procedures for such a situation, Sheridan said. After the incident in Olin Hall, those plans were finalized and reviewed to prevent a similar accident.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department inspected Olin after the release and recommended that the college improve exit signage and add magnetic fire doors, both of which the facilities department have since implemented.
Local authorities completed a brief external investigation per policy, not finding any criminal elements in the release, college officials said.
Cunningham said that he was pleased with Campus Safety’s immediate response to the release, highlighting the communication between the college and first responders from local emergency agencies as being successful.
“One of the things that we started doing in the last year was to do these incident debriefs,” Cunningham said. “You always find after-action items.”
“I think there’s always an opportunity to see what could be improved,” he added.
Campus Safety has since completed training exercises for a similar scenario, working to stay prepared should another event occur, Cunningham siad.
At the scene of the incident last spring, there was initially a lot of confusion about what had occurred and how many people were injured. A HAZMAT unit from the Colorado Springs Fire Department was deployed and washing stations were set up in the middle of a shut down Nevada Avenue between Uintah and Cache La Poudre Streets.
“A lot of people thought there was an explosion,” Sheridan said. “It was not an explosion.”
Despite the confusion, the college’s communications department said that community notifications were successful. However, college officials stress that there is always room for improvement.
“It definitely seemed like a much bigger, more serious situation than it actually was,” Sheridan said.
Cunningham and Sheridan both said that a number of new procedures and response protocols make it doubtful that such as a situation should ever happen again.
“An incident like this shouldn’t happen anytime soon,” Sheridan said.