One of the allegations that has been printed in other media accounts of the lab fire and its aftermath at the University of California, Los Angeles, is that members of Patrick Harran‘s lab tampered with the incident scene. Based on documents C&EN obtained through a California Public Records Act request, this seems to be what happened:
- The fire occurred shortly before 3 PM on Dec. 29, 2008. Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji was taken to the emergency room and Harran followed.
- After Sangji and Harran left, Los Angeles County hazardous materials crews cleaned up the lab. (Recall that medical personnel had put Sangji under the safety shower. Showers are supposed to run at a minimum of 75.7 L/minute for 15 minutes, so there should have been about 1,100 L of water to test and mop up.)
- Harran returned to the lab around 7 PM and was asked by fire officials to shut down the experiment to ensure the hood was safe.
- Sometime after Harran shut down the experiment, UCLA deputy fire marshal Christopher Lutton took photographs of the lab and Sangji’s hood. Lutton also told Harran that the lab would be locked and investigated, although there’s no record of exactly what Lutton said.
- At around 7:30 PM, Lutton left the lab and went down to his vehicle remove his gear, call the locksmith, and call one of his colleagues.
- At about 8:30 PM, Lutton returned to the lab to find Harran and postdocs Weifeng Chen and Hui Ding in the lab. In a later interview with Gene Gorostiza, the UCLA police detective who investigated the scene tampering allegations, Ding said that he and Chen removed six empty flammable liquids containers from the lab and put them in the building’s trash. They also put other solvent containers into a lab storage cabinet.
- Lutton ordered everyone out of the room and stayed on the scene until the locksmith arrived at 9:55 PM.
- The locksmith finished changing the locks at 11:35 PM. At that point, the doors were locked and Lutton took possession of the only key, put up yellow barrier tape, and left.
- Lutton returned to the lab the next morning to find that the restraining bolts in a side panel to one of the doors had been released, allowing the door to open freely. Lutton told Gorostiza that at that point he discovered that the room contents had been tampered with. A timeline of the incident included in UCLA fire marshal documents says that, comparing photos of the lab taken in the morning to the ones taken the previous evening, containers of flammable liquids were removed, other containers were moved into a walk-in fume hood, a cabinet door was left ajar, and some items in the fume hood where the fire had occurred had been moved around.
According to the transcript of an interview (pdf) with Joel Aplin and Maurice Jurado, deputy fire marshals at UCLA, Harran said that he asked the postdocs to clean up the empty solvent containers because “I just wanted to get all those drums out. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have it done (sic). And it didn’t relate to the accident, but it just looked bad.”
The conclusion to Gorostiza’s investigation of the alleged scene tampering, according to a police report dated Jan. 22, was that “based on Harran and Feng’s (sic) statements that Feng (sic) was instructed to clean up the room and the fact that it occurred prior to the room being sealed off by the fire marshal, I have determined that there was no violation of 135 P.C.,” the section of the California Penal Code that covers destroying or concealing evidence. (Gorostiza seems a little confused here, since he only spoke with Hui Ding and notes that he didn’t interview Weifeng Chen because of a language barrier. Presumably where he wrote “Feng” in the statement above, he meant Ding.)
Gorostiza’s report was forwarded to the Los Angeles City Attorney for review. The case was rejected on July 9 due to insufficient evidence, says spokesperson Frank Mateljan.
Related documents (pdfs): UCLA fire marshal timelines; UCLA police report
Tomorrow on C&ENtral: Promoting Safe Research Practices
Previously this week: Safety in Academic Labs; Evaluating Safety; Personal Protection from Fire
Update (Aug. 7): The “other media accounts” link should point to a June 22 story, “Family of UCLA lab fire victim criticizes investigation,” by Kim Christensen of the Los Angeles Times
Update (Aug. 10): Link fixed.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
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