Date: Wed, 29 Apr 2009 08:57:56 -0400
Reply-To: "Erik A. Talley" <ert2002**At_Symbol_Here**MED.CORNELL.EDU>
Sender: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
From: "Erik A. Talley" <ert2002**At_Symbol_Here**MED.CORNELL.EDU>
Subject: New details emerge in fatal UCLA lab fire,0,
From the Los Angeles Times
New details emerge in fatal UCLA lab fire
Researcher complained that coverage 'read like an indictment, without having
the facts' and challenged investigator's report on lab safety, records show.
By Kim Christensen

April 29, 2009

A month after a fatal fire in his organic chemistry laboratory at UCLA,
Professor Patrick Harran e-mailed a state investigator with his chilling
recollection of rushing in to see Sheri Sangji, his critically burned
research assistant.

She sat upright on the floor, her arms outstretched.

"I kneeled down and asked what happened," he wrote Jan. 28. "She was panicky
and said only there was a fire. I asked [a colleague] if he called 911 and
he said yes. Sheri then began saying, 'Where are they? Where are they?' "

Sangji, 23, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 43% of her body in
the Dec. 29 fire. Her death 18 days later has raised questions about UCLA
lab safety practices, as well as her training and supervision by Harran, a
prominent researcher who joined the faculty in July.

His account is among a series of e-mails, investigation reports and other
documents obtained by The Times through a California Public Records Act
request. The records provide new details on the accident and on UCLA's
efforts to address its repercussions, including media inquiries.

In electronic missives to university colleagues, Harran complained that UCLA
had all but hung him out to dry in the press. In one e-mail, he said that
reports in two chemical industry publications "read like an indictment,
without having the facts." 

In another, he took issue with a UCLA investigator's report, which was
detailed in a March 1 story in The Times. The report, citing previous lab
deficiencies that had gone unfixed, made it "sound like I deliberately did
not adhere to policy" and was part of a "culture of neglect," he wrote.

In fact, Harran said, he had made as many of the corrections as he could,
given that the lab was in the process of moving to another floor and was to
be reinspected afterward.

In an e-mail criticizing the investigator's findings, which included
improper storage of flammable liquids, Harran cited the "pitiful state of
the safety office," adding that "they offered NO training for Sheri, but you
don't see that anywhere" in news accounts.

"I could go on and on, but I won't," he wrote. "Sheri was injured and died
and I take responsibility. It hurts me deeply. But it just infuriates me the
way the administration and staff are scrambling to protect their own
[hides]. I will remember this." 

Kevin Reed, UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs, said Tuesday that he
thought Harran's comment was made in a moment of candor and frustration.
Reed added that the staff and administration aren't protecting anyone, but
rather are focused on improving safety on campus.

In response to Sangji's death, UCLA launched a comprehensive review of lab
safety protocols, stepped up inspections and shortened the time allowed to
correct serious violations. Chancellor Gene Block also set up a campuswide
lab safety committee and ordered new measures to enhance accountability.

"I believe we have to deal with this incident honestly and aggressively,
making certain that we institute changes that will help prevent these types
of accidents in the future," Block wrote to UC President Mark Yudof in a
Feb. 27 e-mail to give him a "heads up" on The Times' March 1 story. "As a
laboratory scientist, this accident is particularly painful for me."

Harran was at a conference Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. In
an earlier statement to The Times, he said he was heartbroken by Sangji's

Sangji was transferring up to two ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed
container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing
the chemical compound, which ignites instantly when exposed to air.

The resulting flash fire quickly consumed her clothing, including her highly
flammable synthetic sweater, which was not covered by a protective lab coat
as required. The Times reported in March that the earlier safety
deficiencies in Harran's lab included employees not wearing lab coats.

The lack of proper protective equipment is one of the issues at the heart of
an investigation by Cal/OSHA, which could issue its findings as early as
this week. Reed said Tuesday that he expects the agency to cite serious
violations and impose substantial fines.

Inspectors from the university had previously faulted other labs in the
Molecular Sciences Building where Sangji was burned for missing or
inadequate safety gear. A week before Sangji's injury, a graduate student in
another lab suffered cuts and burns to his face and neck when an experiment
went awry, another accident report stated.

The unidentified student, who was treated at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical
Center's emergency room, told a university investigator that the explosion
caused "glass, hot oil and chemical to fly toward my face, torso" and the
surrounding area.

"When the incident occurred, I had my prescription glasses on, but not lab
coat, gloves or safety glasses/goggles," he said, adding that he had been
trained in safety measures. 

"I had safety training from my previous university," he said, "but not from
UCLA after I transferred here in 2007." 


Erik A. Talley, Director
Environmental Health and Safety
Weill Cornell Medical College
Cornell University
402 East 67th Street, Room LA-0020
New York, NY 10065


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