DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — One week after a fire at Dinwiddie High School injured four students and one teacher, authorities shed new light on the chemistry experiment gone wrong, which they said caused a phenomenon known as flame jetting.
Authorities said that they received a call reporting a possible fire at the high school at 9:23 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 12. According to a release, the first report was received via radio from the School Resource Officer, followed shortly thereafter by a notification from the school fire alarm system and phone call from school staff, indicating the location of the fire and that there were injuries involved.
However, several of the details authorities provided about what happened in the chemistry classroom leading up to the fire contradict recommendations published by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent, federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical incidents.
“The demonstration had been conducted once, and the teacher was in the process of adding additional methanol from an open, narrow-neck, one-gallon container,” Dinwiddie County Fire & EMS Chief Dennis Hale said during the press conference on Wednesday. “As the methanol was poured, the methanol vapor at the bottle opening caused a phenomenon known as flame jetting. Flame jetting caused a large amount of the methanol to be rapidly emitted from the bottle and ignite.”
Hale said that the flames traveled diagonally across the front of the classroom, approximately 10 feet, until they reached an adjacent wall.
Although a one-gallon container was used in this demonstration, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board recommended against the use of bulk containers of flammable chemicals in educational demonstrations when small quantities are sufficient.
“These demonstrations typically use methanol or other flammable liquids as a fuel for combustion,” the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board materials stated. “In response to three separate incidents that injured both children and adults over an eight-week period in 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a safety bulletin titled, ‘Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations.'”
That bulletin also detailed the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s recommendation that strict controls be implemented in demonstrations that require handling hazardous chemicals. This includes written procedures, training and the required use of appropriate personal protective equipment for all participants.
“What I can tell you, as far as the safety protocols, is that we do follow what [the] Virginia Department of Education [VDOE] does provide for us,” Dinwiddie County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kari Weston said. “They go through an annual training. We put the kids through an annual training. The teachers have checklists. There is a self-assessment checklist that the teachers are supposed to follow. For this specific incident, the students reported that there was no protective equipment that was worn during the demonstration.”
Moreover, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s recommendations stated that a safety barrier should be provided between the demonstration and the audience. But Hale noted Wednesday that the teacher, 18-year-educator William Massello, was performing the demonstration at an open-top desk at the front of the second-floor classroom.
“There were 19 students present in the classroom. They were seated in their desks throughout the classroom at the time of the demonstration,” Hale said. “The four students who were injured were all directly in the path of the fire that would’ve traveled from the mouth of the jug to the wall in a straight line.”
As of Wednesday, Superintendent Weston said that officials had interviewed all of the students who were in the classroom at the time the fire sparked, with the exception of those who were hospitalized. She also noted that the teacher had not yet been interviewed, but that officials expected to do so within the next week.
“This is a horrific incident that took place, and it should never take place in any school, in any classroom,” Weston said. “Our classrooms are safe, our teachers are trained, our teachers understand safety protocols.”
Weston added that the school division is planning to make changes to prevent an incident like this from happening again. She sent this statement to 8News on Friday:
There are specific guidelines relative to using chemicals for experiments and demonstrations. Students and teachers are expected to use protective equipment at all times in the science laboratory. We are conducting chemistry experiments and demonstrations virtually until the internal investigation is complete.
8News reached out to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board for more information on these recommendations, but has yet to receive a response.
8News also contacted other local school divisions for information on their safety measures and protocols when it comes to the use of chemicals in the classroom.
Methanol is allowed in Chemistry classrooms in Henrico. However, the division has a strict policy of no open flames present with flammable chemicals. If methanol is used in a chemistry class, it is only used to show the evaporative rate. We also encourage teachers to use a less flammable solution such as ethanol in those labs.
All teachers are asked to complete a risk assessment prior to every lab experiment performed and evaluate the value of the instructional experience to potential safety concerns. In addition, all science teachers are expected to review safety procedures, locations of safety equipment, discuss the need for PPE and actively monitor and support lab safety during experiments.Henrico County Public Schools spokesperson, comment on chemical protocols
A Chesterfield County Public Schools spokesperson forwarded the school division’s 36-page Science & STEAM Safety Guide in response to 8News’ inquiry.
Chesterfield County Public Schools has Chemical Hygiene Officers and Safety Liaisons throughout the school division, whose responsibilities are to monitor science safety within the academic buildings. This includes reporting chemical or physical hazards that pose risks to health or safety, making requests for the disposal of unwanted chemicals, reviewing chemical orders to indicate no prohibited or restricted chemicals are being ordered and submitting these chemicals to the Instructional Specialist for Science for final approval.
Meanwhile, a Hanover County Public Schools spokesperson told 8News that the use of proper personal protective equipment is a standard practice in the school divisions’ classrooms. This typically includes eye protection, at a minimum, such as safety glasses or splash-proof goggles, and includes gloves when there is a possible risk to the skin.
School safety is our top priority and that includes our students’ experiences in the classroom. Our middle and high school science teachers complete Flinn Scientific safety training, which is the national, industry-standard training for teachers. Additionally, our science teachers regularly reinforce classroom and lab safety protocols with our students, especially before a lab lesson or assignment. All of the classes complete an initial safety unit using the Flinn Scientific guidelines (these also are sent home and signed by a parent or guardian) and then complete a safety quiz. In order to participate in labs, a student must score at least an 85% on the quiz.Hanover County Public Schools spokesperson, comment on chemical protocols
Like Chesterfield County Public Schools, Richmond Public Schools also has a 48-page Chemical Hygiene Plan, which was created as a template for K-12 schools when disseminating safety protocols for chemical use in both classroom instruction and facility operations. The document stated, among other protocols, that the scale of a procedure involving such hazardous materials should be reduced to a minimum in order to reduce the generation of used chemicals. It also noted that employees should use appropriate protective clothing an equipment.
An RPS spokesperson sent the following statement to 8News:
Methanol is used in our division. It is not a banned substance, but like all flammable chemicals, it is only used in RPS in extremely controlled environments — under a fume hood, not in enclosed containers, etc. […] The safety of our students is our top priority and we take these safety precautions very seriously.
We have already reached out to all of our chemistry teachers to emphasize these protocols in response to the Dinwiddie incident. They are all very aware of the safety implications regarding any flammable substance.