Researcher hospitalized after lab explosion at UH Manoa

University of Hawaii at Manoa officials say a building has been deemed safe after an explosion on campus that injured a visiting researcher Wednesday night.

The Pacific Ocean Sciences and Technology (POST) building located at 1686 East-West Road will be open on Friday, March 18, for students with classes, and faculty and staff.

Firefighters received the call at 5:52 p.m.

“We heard a huge explosion and the whole building just rattled. It just didn’t feel right,” said UH student Jessie Glasgow.

“I was just on my computer, I was working on my homework and I heard this boom, and it sounded like it came from the floor above us,” Raj Mehta, another witnessing UH student, added.

Officials say the explosion occurred in a basement laboratory. “The walls are broken, the ceiling tiles are dismantled, tables are broken. It was a pretty big explosion,” said battalion chief Geoffrey Chang.

Officials say a 29-year-old woman in a basement laboratory. Bystanders rescued her from the building and brought her to emergency personnel. She was treated and taken to a nearby hospital in serious condition.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the individual affected, with family and with friends,” said UH Manoa chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman. “It’s always a blow at the University of Hawaii when there’s an accident of this kind.”

According to Emergency Medical Services, the woman suffered serious injuries to an arm and possible facial burns.

The building was immediately evacuated. Hazmat crews searched, but did not find any remaining hazardous or explosive elements.

Officials have yet to determine the cause of the explosion, but say a post-incident followup was initiated and national safety experts will be consulted.

It happened in a lab operated by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, which focuses on renewable energy and degradable bioplastics.

“An experiment was in progress to grow cells by feeding them a mixture of low-pressure hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen,” explained Brian Taylor, dean of the university’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. “Hydrogen and oxygen can react, but they actually require something. They won’t in themselves do something like that, so something happened out of the ordinary. We don’t know what that is yet.”

Officials said the injured researcher was trained in both general and lab-specific protocols.

“This thing was routine,” Taylor said. “People coming into the lab are familiarized with what is done in that lab that way when they start. That’s what’s required to get them up to speed, and without being up to speed, they’re not allowed to do things themselves or be alone, any of the above. But once they are practicing and she’s been here for at least six months working on this project.”

The building was closed for most of Thursday while staff inspected each room. Classes, laboratories, and offices were impacted.

School officials says the building, constructed in 1996, was designed specifically for lab use and experiments.

The head of the university’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety office says the facility is inspected annually as required by the state Occupational Safety and Health department, with the most recent inspection taking place in January.

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