Explosive chemistry lesson learned at David Douglas High

See what students discovered about elemental sodium – in an accident that sent 12 people to the hospital …

AMR medics gurney one of a dozen students – after being decontaminated and outfitted in a Tyvek suitto a waiting ambulance near the chemistry laboratory at David Douglas High School.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
In the new science wing at David Douglas High School (DDHS), on the morning of Friday the 13th, students learned a hard lesson by accident – when a small explosion rocked the chemistry lab.

Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) crews raced to the school when they received a report of the incident.

PF&R firefighters and investigator wait for the chemical fumes to clear, before reentering the building …

… then they suit up to return to the science wing of the high school.

“At 10:14 a.m., firefighters from PF&R Station 7 in Mill Park discovered that the explosion had been caused by some type of sodium metal in the sink,” PF&R Public Information Officer Tommy Schroeder told East Portland News.

Metallic sodium, we learned, is potentially explosive – and generates flammable hydrogen and caustic sodium hydroxide upon contact with water. Somebody had put the sodium in the teacher’s sink: “When a student tried to use the drinking fountain, also in that sink, it reacted and the result was a small explosion,” Schroeder explained.

The PF&R HazMat truck and crew stands by, waiting to find out how much decontamination might be needed in the chemistry lab and in the surrounding hallways.

At the scene, David Douglas School District spokesman Dan McCue said that their staff had evacuated the classroom – as well as eleven other classrooms in the science wing – as a precaution.

“The school did an excellent job of isolating those classrooms,” Schroeder commented. “The affected students went to the school’s performing arts center, where they were triaged for the severity of their respiratory injuries.  Those who are most affected were taken to the nurses’ station to be completely decontaminated, and then were put in ambulances for local hospitals.”

Both the classroom where the explosion occurred, and the clothing worn by the students who were transported to hospitals, tested positive for high concentrations of ph, Schroeder reported. “Firefighters used the school’s showers to decontaminate affected students, and outfit them with Tyvek suits prior to transport.”

The back door to the chemistry lab remains open, while the building continues to be ventilated.

Students from the surrounding classrooms were temporarily relocated, McCue said, and the high school continued to operate.

For several hours, PF&R HazMat crews took readings, and firefighters pressure-ventilated the wing using their portable fan systems.

“The school called all of the parents of the students from that particular classroom,” Schroeder continued. “And there’s an important message for the students that did not end up being transported:  If they experience any respiratory issues later today or tomorrow, don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1, or make your way quickly to the nearest hospital.”

As we talked with McCue, we couldn’t recall a similar occurrence at the high school. “But, it is a chemistry lab; they do experiments,” McCue pointed out. “Sodium metal is not supposed to mix with water, in this case it accidentally happened.”

Another ambulance arrives at David Douglas High to transporte victims of the chemistry lab incident.

Learning about the praise firefighters gave the school’s staff, McCue responded, “Our staff responded very quickly. They perhaps evacuated more students in other classrooms than needed to be evacuated. But, we always err on the side of caution. Keeping our kids safe is our number one priority.”

PF&R’s chief spokesman, Paul Corah, later arrived on-scene and said that a total of 12 instructors and students had been transported to area hospitals for medical evaluation. “It looks like 25 students and one teacher were exposed,” Corah said.

Most were complaining of upper respiratory distress, Corah added. “All those transported have non-life threatening injuries.”

In his truck, PF&R Public Information Officer Paul Corah confers with Fire Bureau spokesman Tommy Schroeder, and David Douglas Schools spokesman Dan McCue.

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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