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More details emerge on UC Davis explosives case

At a bail hearing on Friday for University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder, more details emerged about the case against him for alleged possession and intent to make destructive devices, reckless disposal of hazardous waste, and possession of firearms on campus. Snyder was injured in an explosion in his campus apartment on Jan. 17.

2013.02.11 Snyder explosives structures
From the Sacramento Bee:

Prosecutors on Friday said investigators found explosive materials, including nitroglycerine, in UC Davis chemistry researcher David Snyder’s blast-damaged apartment – and said he had been warned in the past not to make explosives at his university’s labs. …

Snyder, 32, pleaded not guilty at his Friday bail hearing in Yolo Superior Court.

He remains held in lieu of $2 million bail at Yolo County jail on 17 explosives and firearms-related charges connected to the early morning blast Jan. 17 at his Russell Park apartment in Davis.

Prosecutors added seven firearms counts in an amended complaint against the chemist, one each for weapons investigators recovered from the apartment, along with what Holzapfel said were “multiple boxes of ammunition.”

Yolo Superior Court Judge David Reed denied Snyder defense attorney Linda Parisi’s request to lower Snyder’s bail to $500,000, saying his alleged actions put friends, neighbors, colleagues and first responders at risk.

Three weeks after the blast, Snyder sat quietly in the jury booth, his damaged left hand in a substantially smaller wrap than at his first court appearance. …

In Snyder’s apartment, prosecutors allege he had several common explosives: a vial of triacetone-triperoxide, known by its initials TATP; hexamethylene triperoxide diamine, or HMTD; and [cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, or] RDX. …

[Snyder defense attorney Linda] Parisi downplayed prosecutors’ explosives claims following the hearing, saying the materials were in “very small amounts” that would require “some force to detonate.”

UC Davis officials declined to comment on Friday’s hearing, but said campus administrators in 2011 had received a complaint stemming from a 2009 incident in which Snyder and a classmate allegedly made small firecrackers in a chemistry department lab.

The complaint was reviewed and the case closed, university officials said. …

I’m not sure where Parisi is getting her explosives information, but nitroglycerine, TATP, and HMTD are primary explosives, which means they are generally considered very sensitive and easily detonated. RDX is a secondary explosive, which means that it is less sensitive. When people design explosive devices, typically a small amount of a primary explosive will be used to set off a larger amount of a secondary explosive (or so I learned when I was reporting Examining Explosives).

Snyder is due back in court on March 14 for “a prehearing conference,” the Bee says. There’s still no word on the identity of Snyder’s alleged accomplice.

Hand-drawn structures inspired by Carmen.

Updated to add link to amended complaint.

Updated again: The Daily Democrat story from the hearing had little information beyond the Sac Bee, except that if convicted Snyder would serve time in a local jail rather than state prison because of a 2011 law. And so far UC Davis has spent more than $23,000 on the case.

Engineering safer syringes

Perfektum syringe clip

Perfektum syringe clip

Last fall, C&EN ran a couple of letters that focused on the role of the syringe in the #SheriSangji case. Both called for a way to prevent a syringe plunger from coming out of the barrel. I’ve seen mention of such devices in comments around the web in the last few years, so I thought I’d take a look at what I could find:

1. The Hamilton Chaney adapter, “a device that assures repetitive and identical syringe plunger location.” The maximum volume syringe appears to be about 500 microliters, and it’s not clear how much force these adapters would resist.

2. Perfektum syringes go up to 100 mL and have a little metal clip on the end that puts pressure on the barrel. A kind source had one in their lab and took the photos to the right for me. The clips look like they wouldn’t resist much force.

Perfektum syringe clip on syringe

Perfektum syringe clip on syringe

3. Valco VICI precision syringes, which have a “positive rear flange plunger stop – prevents plunger from blowing out of barrel at elevated pressure.” They’re designed for chromatography. I have no idea how the plunger stop works. Readers?

4. As one of the letter-writers noted, Becton Dickinson has patents issued in the mid-90s for syringes with “a backstop device to prevent inadvertent withdrawal of a stopper or plunger rod” and “a plunger brake.” These look promising but as far as I can tell neither is available on any syringe available for purchase.

5. For the do-it-yourself crowd, an option is to drill a hole into a plastic syringe barrel and put in a screw far enough to serve as a brake on the plunger. (This procedure, of course, comes with its own set of risks.)

To sum, I really see no readily available answer for the problem. Am I missing something?

In the #SheriSangji case: Sufficient training and oversight?

Is an experiment with an air sensitive catalyst an appropriate way to gauge experimental skill and technique to handle a pyrophoric reagent? That appeared to be one of the arguments that the defense attorney of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran was setting up last month in a court hearing.

Harran faces felony charges of labor code violations relating to the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. Sangji died from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab that started when she was handling tert

-butyllithium.

C&EN and the Safety Zone covered the preliminary hearing in Harran’s case. One of the charges centers on failing to provide chemical safety training. In cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, Harran’s defense attorney, Thomas O’Brien, seemed to be building the assertion that Harran had provided sufficient training and oversight by watching Sangji do an earlier experiment involving a Grubbs II catalyst. From Sangji’s lab notebook, here are the experimental details:

Oct. 14, 2008, experiment that Harran observed

  • Air-sensitive reagent was a Grubbs II catalyst, which loses potency on exposure to air
  • Working in a glove bag, Sangji added 63 mg of the catalyst to a 50-mL flask. She then added 2.5 mL of 1,2-dichloromethane 1,2-dichloroethane to the flask, followed by 250 mg of vinyl glycine dissolved in 2.5 mL of 1,2-dichloromethane 1,2-dichloroethane and 256 mg of undecen-1-ol simultaneously over 20 minutes. She lowered the flask into an 80 ºC oil bath and stirred it under reflux for 20 hours. She sampled the reaction solution to run thin-layer chromatography at 16 and 20 hours. She filtered the solution and then purified it on a silica gel column.
  • Sangji’s notes aren’t clear whether this entire process was done in a glove bag or just the step of weighing the catalyst.

Dec. 28, 2008, experiment that started the fire

  • Air-sensitive reagent was tert-butyllithium (tBuLi), which ignites spontaneously in air
  • Sangji was scaling up an Oct. 17, 2008 experiment to produce 4-hydroxy-4-vinyl decane. The first step of the synthesis was to generate vinyllithium. In October, she added 28 mL anhydrous ether and 3.0 mL vinyl bromide to a 200-mL flask. After stirring the mixture for 15 min at -78 ºC, she added 54 mL of 1.67 M tBuLi. She stirred the mixture for two hours, moved it to a 0 ºC bath for 30 minutes, and took it back to -78 ºC. She then used a double-tipped needle to transfer 3.90 mL of 4-undecanone in 6 mL ether to the vinyllithium solution. She stirred the solution for two hours, then quenched it with sodium bicarbonate. She put the quenched mixture in a separatory funnel, collected the organic phase, dried it to remove residual water, and rotovapped it to remove the solvent from the product.
  • Sangji doesn’t say it in her notebook, but she was probably not working in a glove bag to do this reaction. Going by what she did in December, she was more likely working in a hood, running nitrogen lines to the tBuLi bottle and reagent flask, and using a syringe to transfer tBuLi from one to the other.
  • Sangji scaled up this experiment three-fold in December and used a 60-mL syringe for the tBuLi transfer. We know that she did not clamp the bottle, and so was likely holding it upside down in one hand while manipulating the syringe in the other. She was probably on her second or third transfer, reusing the needle and syringe, when the syringe plunger came out of the barrel, exposing the tBuLi to air and starting the fire. Sangji’s clothes caught fire and she was burned on her thighs, torso, arms, and neck.

What say you, Safety Zone readers? Was a 63-mg Grubbs II experiment an appropriate one by which to gauge Sangji’s skills and technique to handle tBuLi at the 54- or 160-mL scale?

Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day six

With Michael Torrice. If you find typos, mea culpa. This is a long post and we did our best.

Testimony concluded on Tuesday in the preliminary hearing against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. Harran faces felony charges of labor code violations related to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from burns sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab.

Witnesses called to testify over the course of the multi-day hearing included a fire department investigator who interviewed Sangji in the emergency room, a burn doctor who treated Sangji, a pathologist who performed an autopsy on Sangji’s body, a California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator whose report led to the charges, and a chemical safety expert. The recap of Monday’s testimony includes a summary of testimony heard on previous days.

On Tuesday: redirect questioning of Cal/OSHA investigator Brian Baudendistel and cross examination and redirect questioning of safety expert Neal Langerman.
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Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day five

With Michael Torrice

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran appeared in court on Monday to continue a preliminary hearing on felony charges of labor code violations. Harran faces charges stemming from a 2008 fire in his laboratory that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in 2009. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for the prosecution to present evidence to a judge, who will decide if there is enough to take the case forward to a trial.

The hearing started back in November, and here’s what happened so far:

  • Day 1: Complete testimony of a fire department investigator who interviewed Sangji in the emergency room, a burn doctor who treated Sangji, and a pathologist who performed an autopsy on Sangji’s body
  • Day 2: California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator Brian Baudendistel began testifying. Baudendistel authored a report sent to the district attorney’s office recommending manslaughter charges in the case. The district attorney got partway through questioning Baudendistel.
  • Day 3: Chemical safety expert Neal Langerman began testifying. The district attorney completed questioning Langerman but the court ran out of time for cross examination.
  • Day 4: Baudendistel returned to the stand. The prosecution completed its direct questioning of Baudendistel and the defense started but did not complete cross examination.

Yesterday, Baudendistel returned to the stand again for cross examination by defense attorney Thomas O’Brien. O’Brien resumed by asking Baudendistel about a presentation Sangji made at a research symposium at Caltech. Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum objected; O’Brien argued in response that “the thrust of the case appears to be that Ms. Sangji had no experience in working in laboratories and I think her resume indicates that number one she does, and number two, this was part of the information that was made available to Prof. Harran in her application. … It goes to state of mind of my client that these information or background is available on her resume. That is in my client’s mind when deciding on the type of training that is necessary.”
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Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day four

With Michael Torrice

A California occupational safety investigator returned to the witness stand of a Los Angeles courtroom on Wednesday, Nov. 21, to testify about his inquiry into a 2008 chemistry laboratory fire at the University of California, Los Angeles. Researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangi died of burns that she sustained in the fire. The testimony was part of an ongoing preliminary hearing for UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran, who faces felony charges of labor code violations related to the fire.

Wednesday was the fourth day of the hearing. The investigator, Brian Baudendistel of the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA), had started testifying two days earlier but the court ran out of time for him to complete his testimony that day. The Safety Zone has previously recapped days one, two, and three of the hearing.

Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum resumed questioning Baudendistel by asking him whether, in a 2009 interview, Harran had told Baudendistel how he would have preferred Sangji to do the tert-butyllithium transfer that started the fire. Baudendistel testified that Harran said he would have preferred that Sangji use a double-tipped needle, or cannula. Sangji had used a syringe for the transfer instead. The syringe plunger came out of the barrel, exposing the pyrophoric chemical to air and starting the fire.
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Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day three

With Michael Torrice

A chemical safety expert testified Tuesday in a Los Angeles court about his reconstruction of the events that led to the Dec. 29, 2008 fire in the lab of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The testimony was part of the ongoing preliminary hearing for Harran, who faces felony charges of labor code violations related to the fire. Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a research assistant in the lab, died from burns she received in the fire.

On Friday, day one of the hearing, the prosecution called the fire department arson investigator who interviewed Sangji in the emergency room, Sangji’s burn doctor, and the pathologist who did the autopsy on Sangji’s body. Harran’s defense attorney, Thomas O’Brien, cross-examined all three witnesses.

On Monday, day two of the hearing, the prosecution called California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator Brian Baudendistel. Baudendistel did not complete testifying.

On Tuesday, Baudendistel did not return to the stand. The prosecution instead called its next witness, Neal Langerman, out of order because of scheduling constraints. Langerman is the owner and principal scientist of the consulting company Advanced Chemical Safety, and is treasurer and past-chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health & Safety. Prior to becoming a safety consultant, Langerman got a Ph.D. in chemistry and was a faculty member at Tufts University and Utah State University. He has also been a frequent source for C&EN on the Sangji case and other matters.

Deputy District Attorney Marguerite Rizzo questioned Langerman. To establish Langerman as an expert capable of reconstructing what happened leading up to the laboratory fire, Rizzo asked him about his education and credentials in the field of chemistry and chemical safety. Before Rizzo could move on to Langerman’s reconstruction of events, defense attorney O’Brien objected that there had been no testimony about the witness’ past work on investigating laboratory accidents. The judge overruled the objection after she allowed O’Brien to ask Langerman about past cases Langerman had worked on.

The rest of Langerman’s testimony walked through what he knew about Sangji’s first work with tert-butyllithium on Oct. 17, 2008, as well as what she likely did on the day of the fire, based on her lab notebook and Cal/OSHA interviews with others related to the case. The details of Langerman’s testimony largely echoed C&EN’s previous reporting, with a few exceptions: On the day of the fire, Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji did two titrations to check the concentration of tert-butyllithium in solution. Langerman testified that those were likely titrations of two different bottles, not replicate titrations of the same bottle. The bottle Sangji used in the incident only contained 100 mL of solution and Sangji needed about 160 mL, so she would have needed a second bottle.
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Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day two

With Michael Torrice

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran appeared in court again on Monday to continue a preliminary hearing regarding felony charges of labor code violations relating to the death of lab researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in 2009.

A bit more background on the case can be found with the recap of the first day of testimony in the hearing.

The only witness to testify on day two was Brian Baudendistel, an investigator with the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health’s (Cal/OSHA’s) Bureau of Investigations. Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations is charged, in part, with conducting criminal investigations in cases of workplace death. Baudendistel authored a report sent to the district attorney’s office recommending manslaughter charges in the case.

In a motion filed in court in July, Harran’s defense attorney, Thomas O’Brien, challenged the credibility of Baudendistel, alleging that he was convicted as a teenager of a 1985 murder.

Where that challenge stands now is an open question. At the start of Monday’s hearing, the attorneys and court reporter retreated to Judge Lisa B. Lench’s chambers. When they returned, Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum called Baudendistel to the stand, with no objection from O’Brien.
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