Fire breaks out in medical school science building

Puneet Kollipara

A fire broke out on Monday morning in a lab on the School of Medicine’s campus, prompting an evacuation of the building and causing minor structural damage. No one was injured.

According to John Ursch, director of protective services at the School of Medicine, the fire started at approximately 8:53 a.m. in room 361 of the McDonnell Science Building when a contract welder’s acetylene tank fell over and ignited, engulfing the room in flames.

The worker began fighting the fire with a dry chemical fire extinguisher but soon evacuated and pulled the fire alarm. A protective services dispatcher called 911, and protective services used fire extinguishers to control the flames until help could arrive.

According to Kim Bacon, public information officer for the St. Louis Fire Department (SLFD), a 911 call was received a few minutes after 9 a.m. reporting the fire.

The fire was confined solely to the lab room. Firefighters with SLFD arrived on the scene and extinguished the fire by 9:10 a.m., said Bacon.

“Visually inspecting it, the room was well scorched,” said Ursch. “In terms of the bigger picture.the damage was minimal.”

According to Joni Westerhouse, executive director for medical communications, McDonnell 361 is currently an unoccupied laboratory. The building’s third floor has been undergoing renovations and, according to Ursch, the affected room will house a new pharamacology lab.

The building, located at 4566 Scott Ave., and the surrounding area were evacuated for safety purposes.

Because the floor was under renovation, the lab room where the fire occurred was essentially barren and the damage was mostly structural.

According to an e-mail sent out by Bruce Backus, assistant vice chancellor for environmental health and safety, damages included a burnt cart, a damaged pneumatic line and water damage to floors, walls and the ceiling.

The third floor of the building currently has a heat-triggered sprinkler system. Ursch said that at the time of the incident, many ceiling tiles were not installed, and as a result, the opening in the ceiling prevented a buildup of heat sufficient enough to trigger the sprinkler heads.

“Had the ceiling tiles been in place it may very well have set the sprinklers off, but it also may have caused a much bigger fire, because the ceiling tiles would have also ignited and the fire would have started to spread much quicker,” said Ursch.

Interface Construction Company (ICC), a general contractor, has been working on the McDonnell third floor renovation. ICC Project Manager Carl Turek said that the welder who was working in the lab room and who took initial safety measures to fight the fire was a mechanical subcontractor installing piping in the room.

According to Turek, workers with the company receive extensive safety training, including regular meetings to cover important safety topics. Additionally, at the start of each project, the company holds a safety orientation meeting with all workers to review safety measures and to distribute important phone numbers in the event of an emergency.

“Everybody involved with the project gets the same information and knows ground rules before they begin working,” said Turek.

Turek said that the company held a debriefing Tuesday to discuss the incident, and he said that the safety measures that were in place worked properly.

“The fire marshal had compliments for the way the contractor and Wash. U. reacted to the event,” said Turek. “I can’t say there was a good thing about a fire, but what happened yesterday proved that the system in place worked to a ‘T’.”

Ursch said that the situation could have been worse, but thanks to the actions by the worker, the protective service officials’ response and the quick arrival and large presence of the fire department, the fire’s effects were minimal, and the fire probably looked worse than it actually was.

“When you put it all together, we were probably very lucky in that regard,” said Ursch. “All and all, despite the smoke and despite the consternation, it was still a relatively minor fire.”

“A lot of factors have to be in place for [the fire] to have ended up as good as it did,” said Turek. “Everyone involved.worked together to get it contained and brought under control.”

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